A family doctor in Toronto is among several people in court Wednesday facing charges for their alleged roles in a fentanyl trafficking ring busted by police earlier this year.
Dr. George Otto and a colleague at his practice, Shereen El Azrak, were working with street-level drug dealers to obtain and sell fentanyl patches for around $400 to $500 each, York Regional Police claim in a press release.
During a six-month investigation, police say they discovered that the drug — a synthetic painkiller that's 100 times more powerful than morphine — was being illegally trafficked from Toronto to the Greater Sudbury Area.
Five other people are also being charged with drug-related offences following the operation, during which investigators searched homes and a pharmacy in Toronto, and seized nearly 300 fentanyl patches, worth around $120,000, as well as prescription notes.
Last October, Dr. Otto had been disciplined and fined by the provincial physician monitoring body for professional misconduct unrelated to drug trafficking.
There's been growing concern in Canada over the illicit use of fentanyl, which has been linked to a surge in the number of overdose deaths across the country. A recent study found that from 2009 to 2014, there were 655 deaths linked directly or indirectly to fentanyl. Over the last year, police forces have broken up number of fentanyl trafficking rings, including in Calgary and Vancouver.
Used legally with a prescription, a fentanyl patch is meant to be released slowly into a patient's bloodstream over three days to ease severe pain. However, drug dealers have been selling fentanyl trafficked from China as "fake OxyContin" or cutting it into other drugs such as heroin to make the high stronger and maximize their profits, often without the consumer's knowledge.
"Recreational drug users who cut or manipulate a fentanyl patch and ingest, inject or smoke a gel form of the drug should be aware that a fatal overdose can occur," York Regional Police adds in its press release. "Fentanyl is extremely potent and once a patch is altered there is no way of determining the concentration of the substance."
But there are risks even for those who use it with a valid prescription. A new study from the University of Manitoba found that half of all fentanyl patch users in Canada risked overdoses when doctors did not follow the guidelines properly. The province also recently struck a special task force to deal with fentanyl abuse there.
In response to the ongoing risks of fentanyl overdoses, and increased public pressure, Canada's federal health agency decided it would make naloxone, a drug that can quickly reverse opioid overdoses, more readily available. The move was praised as a significant step forward in stemming overdose deaths, especially as Canada has one of the highest rates of prescription opioid use in the world.
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