Many police officers and first responders in North America already carry the overdose antidote naloxone to save dying opioid users. But the rise of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that's around 50 times more powerful than heroin — has led cops in Canada to take a new precaution: carrying naloxone to use on themselves.
Touching or inhaling even a small amount of fentanyl can be fatal, so officers with Canada's federal police force are now carrying naloxone nasal spray in case they come in contact with it while on duty. The police force will also begin distributing naloxone kits that officers may use on overdose victims.
Bob Paulson, commissioner of the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RCMP), told reporters on Tuesday that he cannot overstate the dangers of fentanyl. The force also released a video that shows two officers discussing how they got sick after accidentally coming in contact with the painkiller.
"It's spreading across the country, leaving a trail of misery and death," Paulson wrote in a news release. "First responders and the public need to know that even being near it can make you sick, or worse."
'First responders and the public need to know that even being near it can make you sick, or worse.'
A number of other police forces in the US and Canada have also begun equipping themselves with naloxone — sold under the brand name Narcan — in the event they see someone with fentanyl, or suspect they might have ingested it somehow.
Last week, police in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is on pace to experience more than 800 fatal overdoses this year, announced they would carry naloxone. The city's police chief told reporters that his officers regularly come in contact with fentanyl.
In August, the RCMP awarded a nearly $2 million (CAD) contract to Adapt Pharma Canada, makers of Narcan, although the tender notice gives little detail about the purchase, beyond that it is for 'drugs and biologicals.'
Earlier this year, New Jersey detective Dan Kallen told the Associated Press about an incident where he and his detectives got sick after opening a box of drug accessories while searching a home. Kallen suspected fentanyl was to blame.
"It hit us like a ton of bricks," he said. "It became very difficult to breathe. Our hearts were racing. We were nauseous, close to backing out… I felt like, 'Holy crap, I'm going to die right now.'"
This summer, 23 police departments in Delaware started carrying naloxone to protect themselves and save others from overdose deaths. The kits were purchased with funds seized during drug busts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's been a spike in drug seizures by law enforcement testing positive for fentanyl since 2013, especially in Ohio, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne