Weyburn has seen an increase in the number of calls to police and EMS about drug overdoses this year, and it’s just “the tip of the iceberg”, said Weyburn Police Chief Jamie Blunden, with the deadly drug fentanyl as the current problem.
The chief and his deputy, Brent Van De Sype, spoke to the Weyburn Review about the current drug situation in the city, as they are hoping with the release of the new five-year strategy plan for the Weyburn Police Service, they can try and address the issue with the assistance of the community.
In recent years, cocaine was prevalent in the community, but in the last few months, any overdose calls involve the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Since the start of 2021, the Weyburn police has responded 11 times to calls to assist the Weyburn EMS on a drug overdose — but as Chief Blunden noted, they don’t even hear about most overdoses.
In one particularly eventful weekend in January, there were two deaths and one overdose where the person was able to recover. More recently, WPS had three overdose calls from Feb. 19-21, and one person was taken to hospital in Weyburn then Regina in critical condition.
“Back in the day, we might have tried marijuana, but now drugs are everywhere,” said the chief. “If they take the wrong pill laced with fentanyl, it could be a death sentence.”
This deadly opioid is made in uncontrolled settings, like a kitchen or a bathroom, and a part of the batch could end up more potent and cause overdoses, he explained.
“Potency can vary greatly. It’s not a uniform quality and the mixing is not controlled or exact,” added Van De Sype. “The smallest difference can make the difference whether you live or die.”
He added that when you see five overdoses in three days, “it’s quite likely there’s a bad mixture out there.”
The drug strategy in the new business plan, which was released on Monday, includes enforcement measures through proactive policing, but it also involves interventions through external agency partnerships who can provide resources to help get people off of drugs, and promoting education and awareness programs.
For the police enforcing the laws, “drug work is always hard. You’re always just getting the tip of the iceberg. For every arrest we make of a dealer, there are lots of others who step in,” said Chief Blunden.
The Weyburn Police network with other police agencies to share information on drug dealers to try and make arrests, said the chief, but there may be more success in trying to help people who are dealing with addiction issues.
One of the issues with fentanyl users is they get violently ill after coming down from a high, and they need to have more of the drug just to get rid of the sick feeling, said Van De Sype. “It’s not like they want to be on it. Once you try to get off it, you get violently sick, so they need some more drugs to get away from the sickness.”
What the Weyburn police would like the public to know is for friends and family of drug users to be aware of changes in their appearance or in their behaviour, and to encourage them to reach out for help, said Chief Blunden.
Education is important for youth in high school to hear, and for parents to know what to look for in their children and what harm can come from drugs like fentanyl.
“It’s all about knowing the dangers, and getting the information out so people will know what’s going on,” said the chief. “It’s not about hysteria, it’s about education, and intervention, which is where Sask. Health comes into play. That’s about getting them programming, to get them off the drugs. That’s sitting down with people who are addicted to drugs and saying we need to try and get you into treatment.”
Besides being sickly looking, parents could look for their children carrying two or three cell phones with them. Often this is a sign that one of the phones is used strictly for dealing in drugs.
There is also a change in attitude and in behaviour that a close friend or family member would notice, added Van De Sype. “The signs are there, you just need to be aware to recognize them.”
For parents, they could have a casual conversation at the dinner table on the subject, and they could ask if their kids know what the dangers of drugs are.
“It’s important to have that conversation with them. I think that’s our biggest opportunity here in Weyburn, because we are a close-knit community,” said Chief Blunden. “We need to recognize that there are drugs in Weyburn, and we need to have those open conversations so we recognize what the dangers are.”
Van De Sype pointed out that it’s not just young people who are using the drugs, but they are dealing with people in their 40s and 50s also.
The city police used to have the DARE program in the elementary schools for drug education, but that has gone by the wayside in the last few years. The WPS’s new school liaison officer is looking into how to get information into the schools, such as with short videos, since for the time being, COVID restrictions are keeping out non-teaching staff from entering schools.
Blunden said they are hoping that using social media as well as stories in traditional media sources will also help to get information out to the public, and as people see it they can think of those in their circles of friends or family who may need help with drug addiction issues.
“At some point, most drug users want to stop being sick all the time; it may take five, six, seven times talking to them before they will agree to get treatment. Don’t lose hope in that and don’t be discouraged. It’s about being there and having that conversation with them,” said the chief, who shared a personal story about a niece in Winnipeg.
He noted a niece of his ended up on the streets of Winnipeg turning tricks to earn enough money to get her fixes, and he and other family members talked to her often about getting help.
“After a couple of years, she knew it was time to come in, because we kept extending that help to her, and at some point she made the decision to get help, and we’ve been supportive of her ever since,” he said. “Every family is affected somehow, whether it’s through a friend or family. It’s about being supportive of them.”