Overdose Spiral: 'Not just a big city thing,' say police as drug ODs on rise in Weyburn

·7 min read

WEYBURN — The first month of the new year didn’t leave Weyburn police members with much to celebrate; just a hard reminder of that city’s drug overdose issues.

Three men overdosed on fentanyl in 36 hours. Two died. One was revived with a naloxone shot, but he didn’t want any other help.

Chief Jamie Blunden says those mid-month drug calls were small glimpses of a larger, glaring issue in Weyburn: Overdoses from hard drugs have a strong hold on the southeast Saskatchewan city.

“Word from (drug users) is we're not even seeing the tip of actually what's happening out there,” he says. “There’s a lot of overdoses that are coming in that we're not aware of, and (users) are not calling in.”

New to the service and Weyburn since May, after serving 30 years with Winnipeg police, Blunden relies on his colleagues’ long experience in the city to help him understand the changes they’re seeing in its drug scene.

“It’s not just a big city thing,” says Sgt. Shane St. John, who’s an 18-year Weyburn police member, mostly working on its drug enforcement team.

St. John estimates “it's been about 17 months we've been going” to drug overdoses, particularly those needing the life-saving antidote naloxone (also called by its company name Narcan). It reverses how opioids (fentanyl and its derivatives) affect the brain while also restoring a user’s breathing. Too-potent fentanyl stops your breathing.

“I’ve been to 12,” St. John says, adding it seems like his fellow members are getting overdose calls every day.

“I've been to many where I thought they'd be dead … that they weren't going to pull through. And it's unbelievable. They’re not breathing for a minute and then you just get a (sudden gasping sound), you know a breath. Lips are blue, they're grey, and then you get a breath,” he says.

All Weyburn officers carry naloxone, in case they need to use it on a call. But the original intent of carrying it was self-protection, Blunden says: “Make sure our officers had something to combat coming into contact with opioids.”

Outside the big urban centres, Weyburn isn’t alone in confronting a province-wide drug overdose crisis.

Southey-based Mounties attended a suspected-overdose death on Dec. 9, during which EMS failed to revive the person. The RCMP media team used the death to remind the public, “fatal overdoses are occurring in small towns and rural areas — this is not strictly a big city issue.”

Saskatchewan Coroners Service data from 2020 proves as much.

Fentanyl or its derivatives contributed to confirmed overdose deaths in Aberdeen, Estevan, Humboldt, Langenburg, La Ronge, Lloydminster Martinsville, McLean, Melville, Pilot Butte, Radisson and Yorkton, among others.

Yorkton had seven confirmed drug overdose deaths. Lloydminster and Moose Jaw had three each. Several First Nations had at least one each.

The provincial service confirms 172 OD deaths in 2020, projecting that number will hit 377 if suspected cases are confirmed.

Weyburn’s drug scene complicates matters: The coroners service says a confirmed fentanyl-related death hasn’t happened there since 2018.

And yet its police members are called to drug overdoses on a regular, daily basis, often using naloxone.

Though it’s a life-saver, Blunden describes naloxone as a “double-edged sword.”

It’s available for drug users to have on hand, in case they overdose while using with a partner. The police chief supports its regular availability for users.

He’s also honest about nalaxone’s other outcome: “Allowing those individuals that are addicted to try a little bit more, to push that envelope a little bit more knowing that they have someone with naloxone to bring them back.”

Big-picture-wise, St. John traces Weyburn’s drug usage trajectory as one of decay.

When he first started on the force in the early 2000s, “alcohol was hardcore — (the) oil (sector) was busy as hell, you're going to fights left, right and centre; the bars were nuts; it was a gong show.”

Boozing slowly transitioned to casual cocaine use. “Cocaine took over and that slowly went into methamphetamine. Then the fentanyl and meth, and now fentanyl.”

“And what a horrible trend. Compared to all the other ones, this one just devastates them.”

Economics have had a hand in that decay.

Whereas meth used to outsell cocaine by 60 per cent in per-gram units, “now it's totally flipped,” he says. Shoddy cocaine still sells for $100 per gram, and buyers know they’re actually getting closer to a half gram.

Meth goes for $40 to $60 per gram. “You can get 10 points per gram (of meth). So that's 10 hits out of a gram for way less money than cocaine, and it gives you the same high and it lasts longer.”

The meth price-drop started about two years ago, giving way to the current fentanyl crisis, St. John says.

One point of fentanyl, about one-tenth of a gram, goes for $40. Health Canada says it’s 100 times more potent than morphine and 20 to 40 times more potent than heroin.

One point of fentanyl is enough to get high, if a user has a low tolerance. One point can also kill him, or throw her into an unconscious, overdose state.

It’s those calls to overdoses that are draining Weyburn’s police resources.

Ingesting fentanyl or methamphetamine could instigate “psychosis,” St. John says. “(It) can be temporary, but the more you use, (psychosis) can become permanent. It's like schizophrenia: They see things, they hear things, people are telling them to do things that aren't there. (There’s a chance) paranoia gets out of control.”

That leads to self-harm or harming others, he says. “They also get very violent with their partners.”

Dealing with a fentanyl or meth user is different than dealing with an out-of-control, abusive drunk; it’s easy to toss them in the drunk tank and let them sober up.

“Dealing with a domestic situation, you could be there for hours to make sure everybody is OK. Or you’re dealing with a serious sexual assault or assault because of addictions. That's a lot more work than dealing with a couple of guys fighting in a bar,” St. John says.

Blunden says the service is tracking certain drug charges as indicators of Weyburn’s overdose crisis.

“Trafficking charges (for hard drugs) have doubled from 2019 to 2020,” the police chief says. “Possession charges went up 143 per cent: We had 16 in 2019. In 2020 it went up to 39.”

Comparing five-year averages with 2020 alone is just as ugly.

Last year’s trafficking charges beat the five-year average by 52 per cent. Possession charges in 2020 outpaced the five-year average by 70 per cent.

Blunden confirms none of those 2020 charges had to do with illegal marijuana usage.

He says being candid about his city’s overdoses isn’t meant to cause panic. “This is about awareness. This is about the fact we do have drugs in a small community … It’s about us (coming) together to recognize that and offer those supports.”

He’s hopeful about the service’s drug strategy, which underscores partnerships among his unit, social programs like victim services and social services and education work.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to it, to make sure we have the supports in place for those that are suffering,” Blunden says.

And despite the seeming rot of the drug crisis, St. John, too, is resilient.

“You don't get discouraged; as police you can't get discouraged. You just keep trying to help them and do what you need to do," he says.

“You keep going after the people selling it the best that you can to stop it."

eradford@postmedia.com

Part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 on Thursday told a mother's devastating loss to fentanyl. In Part 3 on Saturday, a fentanyl user shows what resiliency looks like for him, as he tries to quit the drug and stay clean.

Evan Radford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Regina Leader-Post, The Leader-Post