Amelia and Hardy Leighton were, by all appearances, a young, happy, stable married couple from North Vancouver. They decided to celebrate the purchase of their first home—fit with a yard for their two-year-old son—by getting a little high. On July 20, they were found dead in their home. The cause of their deaths—and a record high of other Canadians this year—was fentanyl: An opioid painkiller 100 times more powerful than morphine that is often found laced in street drugs.
The Leightons, along with many of the faces of fentanyl overdoses, were not drug addicts. They used drugs recreationally and infrequently. They had no idea they were ingesting the fatal opioid. Fentanyl is infecting communities across Canada as it creeps its way into party drugs.
This epidemic affects everyone. University students are especially vulnerable given that young adults are more likely to use drugs than any other age group. As such, Canadian universities have a responsibility to educate students about drug safety and protect them against overdosing on fentanyl.
Traces of fentanyl have been found in counterfeit OxyContin, Percocet, and Xanax pills, as well as in other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and MDMA. Fentanyl is cheap, so it's cut into drugs like cocaine to buff them up for buyers. What makes fentanyl so dangerous is how potent it is: One microgram of fentanyl—the size of one grain of salt—can mean the difference between a euphoric high and death.
Though intended as a prescription pain-reliever, the presence of illicit fentanyl in Canada is growing at a rapid rate. In BC and Alberta—the two provinces most affected by the drug—fentanyl-linked fatalities spiked from 42 in 2012 to 418 in 2015. There were 508 illicit drug deaths in BC from January to September 2016, 60 per cent of which were linked to fentanyl. Two people die from opioid overdoses in Ontario every single day. This national epidemic is projected to reach new heights before it slows down. No community is immune.
The combination of cocaine, a stimulant, and fentanyl, a depressant, is especially deadly. Because cocaine is a social drug often used at parties, its marriage to fentanyl opens up the painkiller’s devastating effects to a much larger audience. This summer, nine people overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine in the span of 20 minutes in Delta, BC. Just a few weeks ago, five partiers in Barrie, ON, met the same fate. There’s no such thing as doing a harmless line at a party anymore.
University is a pivotal, formative chapter in an individual’s life, and university students are prone to going out and experimenting. Post-secondary institutions play a key role in influencing and raising awareness about the risks of drug culture. Universities must inform students about drug safety and foster open, judgment-free spaces where students can access overdose prevention tools and seek help and information.
There’s no chemical remedy for addiction, but naloxone, an antidote drug, can save lives in cases of fentanyl overdoses. Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and morphine. In response to the rising fentanyl epidemic, the University of British Columbia is now administering free take-home naloxone kits and training students on how to use them. At the University of Calgary, naloxone is available to students with a history of opioid use and a prescription from a registered nurse; however, keeping naloxone behind-the-counter is not productive. If an overdose occurs, it's the friends or family of the opioid user who need the counterdrug to save a loved one. In a literal life-or-death situation, universities must be as proactive as possible.
Fentanyl has yet to have as deadly an impact in Quebec as it has had out West; still, the epidemic is spreading across the country—and it’s way too close for comfort. While individuals have a responsibility to inform themselves about safe drug use and exercise judgment, universities must take the initiative now to protect students from this nationwide crisis. Universal access to naloxone kits is a significant step that should be implemented immediately. Given students’ proximity to party drugs, they are especially vulnerable. Fentanyl is strong, relentless, and all-consuming—and its next victim could be someone you know.