Clubs, employers, police, healthcare centres and schools are preparing for fentanyl-laced drugs in Whistler.
"We haven't seen a lot of it, but being a tourist location, it's definitely in the area," said Whistler RCMP Inspector Neil Cross Cross. "It's just a matter of time. Once again it's an education piece, making sure the young folks are aware of it, and it's constantly in the media, so hopefully the adults are aware of it (too)."
In a mid-year report to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) Sept. 20, Cross listed more than 130 arrests for possession of cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy — though fentanyl was not among the seizures, Cross told council that the local detachment will soon carry naloxone kits to combat fentanyl exposure. Staff will be trained to administer the drug.
Joey Gibbons, of the Gibbons Group, which owns the Longhorn, Buffalo Bills, Garfinkel's, Firerock Lounge, Tapley's and the Mountain Club, said he meets with his staff to discuss not only drugs, but such issues as new skiers or boarders jumping off of cliffs and every other danger that new workers can experience when they arrive in Whistler.
"What we do every November, when we get a bunch of new people, we hold a team meeting and the message is: Listen, we want you to come to Whistler, we want you to have fun in Whistler and we want you to be safe."
Gibbons said he and his colleagues are concerned about fentanyl.
"Nobody wants this," he said. "We all — as a big group — have a meeting once a month and get together to speak about what we can do to ensure this is as safe as it can be."
Gibbons said the monthly meeting includes police, liquor inspectors, and members of the hospitality industry to keep on top of issues. "We're all in this together," he said.
The acute danger of fentanyl-laced drugs was highlighted further in a report last month from the BC Coroners Service that detailed hundreds of deaths from illicit drug use this year — a 74-per-cent increase in the number of deaths compared to the same period last year.
It seems only a matter of time before fentanyl — which is estimated to be 80 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more toxic than heroin — shows up in club drugs or on the street for recreational drug users in Whistler.
For the North Shore/Coast Garibaldi region so far this year, there have been 23 deaths due to illicit-drug overdose, and a total of 100 in the Vancouver region — and 488 in B.C. by the end of August, which represents a 222-per-cent increase compared to 2015.
The majority of those affected are males between the ages of 30 and 39 at a rate almost four times higher than females. Fentanyl was detected — or blamed — in 60 per cent of the deaths.
The increasing number of deaths due to fentanyl overdose caused Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall to declare the province's first public-health emergency back in April when he was appointed by Premier Christy Clark to head a task force to combat drug overdoses. At the time, Kendall predicted that if the trend continued, the number of deaths in B.C. this year could reach 800.
Marilyn Caldwell, Director of Instruction, Learning Services for School District No. 48, said fentanyl is a Tier-3 issue for the school: a concerning issue that calls for proactive strategy and action from all partners. Caldwell and school officials and counsellors have been meeting with police, Vancouver Coastal Health, mental-health and youth workers, and with Parent Advisory Councils to get ahead of the situation.
"Everybody agrees that although fentanyl is not an issue [in area schools] right now, we want to gather as much information for students and to prepare for what might come but also to get out in front of it. So that's where we're at right now," she said, adding that students are aware — and fearful.
"The message is out there right across the corridor — the youth are afraid of it, they're not seeking it, they're wanting to avoid any possible contact with it. And that's the information we want to have," Caldwell said, adding that front-line workers have not seen youths seeking fentanyl.
"There's so much in the media, and the advisory from the (Provincial) Health Officer, I think it really helped so we got a better handle on it," she said.
In an email, Joel Chevalier, vice-president of employee experience at Whistler Blackcomb (WB), said: "It is always tough to draw the line on when and where we need to be the parents, but we do take some steps in this regard. The steps are more generic and about making good choices, but we did just recently communicate to our house residents the dangers of fentanyl and the number of recent deaths in B.C. that are directly related."
Chevalier said Whistler Blackcomb's staff housing arrangements feature full-time house advisors who work with employees to "provide advice and guidance on a more personal level," and added a youth outreach worker is employed to work with those who "might need a higher level of attention."
"We have a harm-reduction approach," added Chevalier.
"We offer a lot of education and support and try to encourage people to make good decisions. If they do not make good decisions, we go back to education and support to see if we can change behaviours."
Chevalier said Whistler Blackcomb has no plans to stock naloxone, a drug that can block or reverse the effects of opioid medication.
Michael Varrin, general manager food and beverage for WB, said: "For the Whistler pub sector, I will fit the discussion in one of our next meeting agendas to open the conversation amongst the group."
David MacKenzie, president of the BC Hotel Association and owner of the Pemberton Valley Lodge, acknowledged B.C. has had more incidents of fentanyl-related deaths than anywhere else in Canada, and "certainly, it's alarming. The concern for our staff and guests' safety is paramount," he said.
Tiffany Akins, of Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), said fentanyl can be found in pills sold as fake oxycontin and other club drugs, in powder as heroin, and can be mixed in to other drugs like cocaine and crystal meth.
"People don't often think they are taking fentanyl but it can be mixed into substances," she said.
"Fentanyl is toxic. A piece of fentanyl the size of one or two grains of sand can cause an overdose.
"We are working on having take-home naloxone kits for patients who may be at risk of an overdose available at all emergency departments and urgent care centres, including the Whistler Health Care Centre."
A new VCH social-media campaign has launched and features warnings about the dangers of fentanyl-laced drugs.
The federal government last week announced a summit for Nov. 18 and 19 in Ottawa to address the opioid crisis. Eric Hoskins, Ontario's minister of health, will be co-hosting the event.
For information, go to www.vch.ca/overdose.
-With files from Braden Dupuis and Brandon Barrett.