An Ontario group's recent warning about an opioid-containing substance said to resemble cannabis was misleading and risks undermining public trust in authorities, according to a local opioid drug user and an expert on harm reduction.
The May 21 alert from the Waterloo Region Integrated Drugs Strategy group (WRIDS) offered a warning about a product seized in Ontario that has the appearance of cannabis, though it noted the product did not actually contain cannabis and had not been found in the Waterloo area. It included two low-resolution pictures of a clumpy green substance and sparked local media coverage.
The group later released a second notification, reiterating "this is not cannabis laced with an opioid."
The story behind the alert goes back almost two months to the arrest of two people hundreds of kilometres away from the Waterloo region. Ontario Provincial Police were called to investigate a suspicious vehicle that had hit a park bench in Tecumseh, Ont. on March 28. Inside the car they found drugs including cocaine, heroin and psilocybin, as well as a number of guns.
A substance containing carfentanil — an opioid considerably more potent than fentanyl — was also seized in that incident, according to OPP spokesperson Derek Rogers, although that information wasn't initially released to media.
An OPP press release issued about two weeks later did mention that carfentanil was seized during the March 28 arrests, although it made no mention of the substance resembling cannabis. Rogers said he wasn't sure how that description, or the accompanying photo, reached WRIDS.
As it turns out, the photo of the substance and the descriptor likening its appearance to cannabis were provided to the organization by another law enforcement agency, the Waterloo Regional Police Service, a spokesperson confirmed.Advertisement
"We just felt it necessary that if it is in Ontario, even if it wasn't seized in our area, we have an obligation for public safety to put that out there," Waterloo police spokesperson Cherri Greeno said.
The information provided to WRIDS from Waterloo police included details about a similar fentanyl-containing substance recently seized by police in Ohio, as well as information from the OPP, Greeno said. The image of the green substance featured in the alert is actually a photo of the substance seized by police in Ohio, she said.
A WRIDS spokesperson was unavailable for an interview, but said in a statement the group works with local police to alert the public about toxic substances or new substances in the community.
"This is to ensure that local service providers and community members have access to information about substances and harm-reduction information, including how to access naloxone," the spokesperson wrote.
The green substance pictured in the alert looks similar to forms of fentanyl currently being sold in the Waterloo region, according to a Waterloo-area woman named Jenny who uses opioid drugs and contacted The Leaf News to discuss the WRIDS warning.
"I have seen purple, I've seen blue, I've seen orange, I've seen yellow and then I've also seen green," said Jenny, who granted an interview on a first-name-only basis.
"When I first saw the alert and that it was said that it resembled cannabis, I had to laugh because, obviously, having used it, I knew that up close and in person it looks nothing like cannabis. Nothing at all. It's not plant material, it's clearly a powder that's pressed into rock."
Jenny said she's personally used a similar-looking green fentanyl product within the last two months. It usually costs $100 for 0.5 grams, and users smoke or inject it, she said.
"I know nobody is marketing it as cannabis. That would just be ridiculous… if anybody did try to sell it as cannabis, the person receiving it would look at it and be like, 'What the hell are you selling me? This isn't pot.'"
Jenny said she respects WRIDS, and said the organization's public alerts are usually accurate, if somewhat delayed.
"I understand why they put out the alert. They want to be safe," she said.
"But it just causes more hysteria, and more fear mongering. There's already so much fear about fentanyl, we don't need this. We don't need this suggestion that people are putting fentanyl in cannabis because it's not happening."
Ontario Harm Reduction Network director Nick Boyce also believes WRIDS meant well with its alert, but worries the message could unnecessarily scare people who aren't actually at risk of harm.
"If we're going to have effective drug policy response, if we are going to effectively keep people safe, it has to be rooted in evidence and science," he said.
Boyce said he's not aware of a single, laboratory-confirmed case of cannabis containing fentanyl in Canada.
"My concern is when you get a health-based organization, or even the police, putting out an alert or a message that's well-intentioned, but when it's not fact-based, you lose credibility with your audience," he said.
"And you just have to look at some of the online comments with some of the media around these recent alerts, where people are just dismissing it and saying, 'It's bulls—-, it's drug-war propaganda.'"