There have been more than 500 reports of stolen or lost fentanyl by hospitals across Canada over the last six years, according to new data obtained by VICE News.
While bootleg fentanyl — most often imported illegally from China — has been responsible for what’s been described as the greatest drug safety emergency in Canadian history, thousands of prescription doses that have gone missing or been stolen from hospitals highlight ongoing concerns about the medical industry’s role in the opioid crisis.
The new numbers, obtained through an access to information request to Health Canada, list the reports of stolen or lost fentanyl by hospitals from 2010 to September of this year and shed light on this matter for the first time.
Overall, there were 532 such reports from hospitals in nine provinces.
Hospitals in Alberta and Ontario reported the highest number of lost or stolen fentanyl, with 131 and 239 reports. These involve hundreds of fentanyl patches and millilitres of liquid; in 2014, one facility in Ontario said 26,000 doses were unaccounted for, although the data does not say the dosage or type of fentanyl it was. In Manitoba, 2,770 fentanyl citrate 50 microgram doses went missing that same year.
Hospitals in British Columbia, which became the first province to declare a state of emergency over the skyrocketing rates of overdoses linked to fentanyl, reported it went missing or was stolen 32 times. The data does not identify the hospitals in question.
There is no data from Prince Edward Island nor any of the three territories.
Hospitals, pharmacies, and doctors are required to report the loss or theft of opiates and other controlled substances to Health Canada within 10 days. But those reports are not required to be made public, and the federal health department is not directly involved in regulating how narcotics are secured by hospitals. It’s very rare for hospitals to report instances of stolen drugs to the police.
A rough analysis of the numbers suggest that the total street value of the lost and stolen Fentanyl could be north of $250,000.
“The Department receives thousands of reports of loss and theft per year. It uses this information to assess whether there are any unusual patterns and to follow up with regulated parties, as necessary,” reads a statement sent by Health Canada after this story was published. “Loss and theft reports typically show losses of less than 1 percent of total sales. This is consistent with reports received on fentanyl, where loss and theft accounted for less than 1 percent of fentanyl sales (0.2 percent of sales of fentanyl patches and even less for other forms of fentanyl).”
A spokesperson said that all missing drug cases are reported to police “where illegal activity is suspected.”
Many users can purchase diverted pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl on the streets, and the patches that are designed for patients suffering from severe pain can be ingested by smoking or injecting. Each patch can fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market.
The year 2014 saw 91 reports of fentanyl loss or theft, the highest since 2010, which had 74 reports. In 2014, provinces across the country began issuing their first warnings about deaths related to the synthetic opioid. It’s also the year that Ontario first declared that fentanyl was the leading cause of opioid deaths in the province.
The new data does not include loss or thefts of the opioid reported to Health Canada by doctors or pharmacists, which is its own problem.
In August, nearly 100 patches were stolen from a Toronto pharmacy. Earlier this year, a woman was charged for allegedly stealing fentanyl from a Regina pharmacy.
Vancouver Coastal Health came under fire in February following the overdose death of an employee there who stole morphine and syringes from a Vancouver hospital. Officials at a hospital in Victoria, BC confirmed in September that a liquid containing fentanyl went missing sometime in 2015.
In September, it was revealed through an access to information request that more than 1,251 millilitres of liquid fentanyl had gone missing from a hospital in Victoria, BC in 2015, but that was never reported to the police.