A young man died last week in Sackville from a suspected overdose.
The Southeast District RCMP responded to a 911 call just before midnight on Friday, April 1, and upon arriving at Uncle Larry’s Bar on Main Street in Sackville, found a 24-year-old male with no pulse.
Corporal Brian Villers said he could not confirm the exact cause of death until an autopsy was completed, but it appeared to be due to an overdose.
Villers says this is the only sudden death reported to the Sackville detachment recently that is suspected of being an overdose. However, support workers have reported a string of overdoses in nearby Moncton recently, all seemingly connected to a similar substance.
High risk synthetic opioid in circulation
Debby Warren is the executive director of Ensemble Moncton, an organization which specializes in harm reduction for people using drugs and suffering from addiction.
Warren says there is a dangerous supply of a synthetic opioid pills called Shady Eights circulating in the region. The pills get their name from the pharmaceutical-grade pill they are manufactured to imitate, Dilaudid 8.
Warren says she knows of six recent overdoses in Moncton all connected to a similar substance, all in people who survived with the help of a drug called Naloxone and having people nearby to administer it.
“We know [these six overdoses] here in the Moncton area are all from the same substance, all clearly much more potent than normal,” says Warren.
Naloxone is a medication used to rapidly reverse the effects of opioids, by actually blocking opiate receptors in the brain. Ensemble distributes Naloxone kits through a number of methods, including harm reduction vending machines, one of which operates in downtown Sackville inside the Main Street doors of the United Church. The kits are available for free, along with a number of other useful items from condoms to snacks.
In 2021, Ensemble distributed 757 naloxone kits, up from 251 the year before. And the demand appears to be growing. “We really upped the distribution of our kits,” says Warren. “We had 75 ordered two weeks ago, I just ordered another 50 the other day. We’re just doing our best to keep them in stock and make sure people have them.”
Naloxone needs to be administered quickly in the case of an overdose, and so it’s important for people who are taking non-pharmaceutical grade drugs to have a kit with them, as well as someone capable of administering it, says Warren. Ensemble has a harm reduction educator who has been teaching people how to use the kits, but the funding for that position ran out on March 31, she says.
RCMP can’t say if dangerous supply of Shady 8s is being investigated
RCMP spokesperson Hans Ouellette says that the police service doesn’t usually issue public warnings about specific batches of illegal substances that might be circulating, even if they are known to be dangerous. “What we usually say, and what we continue to say, is that illicit drugs are dangerous,” says Ouellette. “And we don’t recommend anyone to take illicit drugs, and to stay away from them.”
For those addicted to substances, Ouellette recommends reaching out to health or social services. “There’s many services out there, in the health authorities, social service workers, your doctor, or any addiction services can help you with your addiction,” says Ouellette.
Ouellette doesn’t rule out warnings coming from the RCMP for specific types of drugs, and says the force has communicated about the dangers of fentanyl in the past.
But when it comes to the current supply of dangerous Shady Eights, the force has yet to issue a warning.
Ouellette would not say whether or not the force is investigating or trying to track down this particularly dangerous supply of Shady Eights, because “we don’t usually talk about investigations unless charges are laid.”
“In general, we want the public to know that this stuff is out there, and to be wary of that,” says Ouellette. “And we continue to fight the trafficking of that stuff here in the province. And we just want anyone who has information to contact their local police force.”
Big picture: the demand for illegal opiates
Warren says the opiate crisis being experienced in varying degrees across North America was created by the overprescription of legal, regulated opioids, and then the subsequent change of course.
“Once they realized, oh, we shouldn’t be prescribing so many opioids, they went and reduced the number of prescriptions,” says Warren, “making it harder to get pharmaceutical grade. And they did nothing extra to help those who were already addicted… And so we pushed them to the street, right? Where else would they have to go?”
The demand created by overprescribing didn’t go away with the withdrawal of legitimate supply, and instead spawned a thriving illegal supply industry. And it’s a supply that is unpredictable and unreliable, distributing sometimes dangerous substances like Shady 8s.
“I don’t know how many chemists are behind the scenes making those illicit substances,” says Warren, “but I probably could say there’s not a whole lot.”
“This is why in our business we talk about safe supply,” she says.
Safe supply is the term for a legal and regulated alternative to the illegal drug supply. Warren says that Ensemble hopes to open an opioid replacement program in Moncton similar to one currently running in Fredericton, which is one of five pilots across the country. The idea is people suffering from addiction can come, consult with medical professionals, and be prescribed what they need. In addition to removing the risk of tainted or dangerous substances, the secure access would create the stability that is needed for recovery.
Of course, the illegal, unsafe drug supply is not only dangerous for people suffering from addiction. It’s also potentially life-threatening for people experimenting, using drugs recreationally or for the first time.
Warren says there’s a wider question we need to keep in mind if the goal is to reduce the prominence of dangerous drugs.
“Why are people using drugs? That’s the question we need to ask,“ says Warren. “And how do we address that? Because when we work to address that, then we can diminish the need to have people selling illicit substances made in someone’s garage or basement that’s killing people. That’s when those needs go away.”
Warren says many of the reasons people are compelled to substance use are related to trauma and mental health.
“If you take the time to listen, you will start to see it’s trauma,” says Warren, also pointing to reports of anxiety and stress run rampant in young people. Some will look for relief from their pain in the form of substance use, says Warren, unless they can get help elsewhere, through health or community supports.
“We just need to make sure we have options,” says Warren, “because it’s not cookie cutter either. We need to have options for people, and it needs to be low barrier.”
“We really have a huge job to do and it won’t go away overnight,” says Warren. “And in the meantime, here we are in this mess.”
To get a Naloxone kit check out the vending machine in the Main Street doors of the United Church in Sackville, or call Ensemble Moncton at 506-859-9616.