Fentanyl and the dangerous class of opioids like it amount to one of the major public health issues of our time.
Police, politicians and public health officials in the Yukon rightly fear a wave of opioid-related deaths coming to the territory. Elsewhere, opioids amount to a full-blown epidemic. In British Columbia, there were 525 overdose deaths through May of this year.
At a rate of 4.5 deaths per day, B.C. is on pace, according to the Vancouver Sun, to hit 1,400 deaths for the year, a massive spike above the 935 deaths reported last year. The Canadian Press reports that 2,458 Canadians died in 2016 of opioid overdoses.
In the United States, meanwhile, total drug deaths, including opioids, ranged between 59,000 and 65,000 in 2016, according to a New York Times projection created using data from various state and national public health agencies. That includes 122 deaths in Alaska.
So we are, in a sense, surrounded by this misery. Five Yukoners have already died from fentanyl overdoses. That may not amount to the same numbing toll as B.C. or Alaska, but it remains a serious problem and an obvious priority for M Division.
This is why it is particularly disappointing that it took the RCMP roughly six weeks to reveal that they had charged someone with possession of fentanyl for the purpose of trafficking.
Police intercepted a package in late April that allegedly contained 535 tablets of fentanyl, but it was not until late June that investigators finally arrested a suspect. Jibril Hosh Jibril, 26, faces a charge of possession for the purpose of trafficking.
“He was a difficult person to find,” said RCMP Supt. Brian Jones, “and when he was found he was arrested.” He said police were not waiting for lab results to confirm the pills were fentanyl before making the arrest. “As soon as we found him we were going to arrest him.”
This is when the RCMP should have released information about the seizure and arrest. Jones himself says “we dropped the ball.”
It was not until one of our reporters got wind of the story that the RCMP put together a news release. By the way, doing this, instead of giving us the story first, is, strictly speaking, poor media tradecraft. Then again, literally nobody cares about this except reporters.
Police have said the pills were bound for another jurisdiction — they won’t say where. It is not clear if the pills were intended to be consumed as-is, or not cut into other drugs, a practice that has made the consumption of heroin and cocaine even riskier than they were before the opioid epidemic.
Jones said police are still trying to grasp the full picture of the opioid crisis here. “We still don’t have the information to know what part of the pie these 535 pills were.”
To his credit, Jones acknowledges the police fell short here. And though he was loath to say so directly, Jones said the heavy police workload thanks to a spate of murders also played a role in the communications breakdown.
And here’s the thing: The reason we are disappointed with the RCMP’s failure to announce this arrest is that communicating information about the presence of fentanyl is of vital public interest. Given the danger of simply touching fentanyl, alerting the public to the drug’s increased presence is extremely important.
As the Atlantic reported in May, three milligrams of fentanyl — just a few grains — can be fatal. “A puff of fentanyl from closing a plastic bag is enough to send a full-grown man to the emergency room.”
This is why the RCMP needs to do better at communicating the presence of these drugs in the territory. Drug users, first responders, even, conceivably, Good Samaritans who stop to help someone in distress, are all potentially at risk.
The RCMP saw something, and they should have said something. It’s not about us in the press getting the story. It’s about the safety of the public the police are sworn to protect.
Contact Chris Windeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org