Tainted drugs found in Vernon nearly guarantees fatality in overdose: Why would anyone do that? | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Tainted drugs found in Vernon nearly guarantees fatality in overdose: Why would anyone do that?

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Interior Health Authority recently issued a drug alert warning opioid users in Vernon that a contaminated supply of fentanyl was currently being sold which did not respond to naloxone.

The alert warned of a high risk of overdose which would be unresponsive to naloxone – a substance used to reverse an opioid overdose – making an already lethal drug even more dangerous. The alert said the fentanyl contained benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety drug which until recently was widely prescribed by doctors.

The drug alert raises the question: Why would a drug dealer knowingly cut their supply even though it may kill one of their customers?

"There's... not a clear simple answer," Jessica Bridgeman, regional harm reduction coordinator at Interior Health told iNFOnews.ca. "Contaminations of the drug supply has been around forever, we know even historically back to when we had alcohol prohibition (that) harmful drugs come out of criminalized environments, so when we have a black market, that's when we start to see the drugs become harmful."

Bridgeman said drug dealing is a business, and like all business, follows basic patterns of supply and demand.

"(And) there's a never-ending demand," she adds.

And that never-ending demand is often fatal. Since 2016 there have been almost 6,000 overdose deaths in B.C. due to illicit drugs.

Part of Kile McKenna's job with ASK Wellness Society, the organization that alerted Interior Health to the toxic fentanyl supply, is to check drugs for contaminants.

"The really concerning thing about this sample was how readily Etizolam showed up," McKenna said. "What makes it extra concerning is that benzodiazepines have many of the same qualities as a depressant that opioids would have... but they're totally not responsive to naloxone."

The fentanyl that spurred the alert contained a benzodiazepine, called Etizolam. McKenna said it's not usual for fentanyl to contain small amounts of benzodiazepine, as it magnifies some of the effects of taking fentanyl.

Etizolam hasn't been authorized for use in Canada, so while the drug isn't available on prescription, surprisingly it's not a restricted substance either. McKenna said it was probably purchased online from overseas, and not confiscated by the authorities when it arrived in Canada as its not technically illegal. It may have been added because it's cheaper than fentanyl, or maybe just because it was available in larger quantities than fentanyl.

McKenna said it's very common for fentanyl to contain other drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids are popular but don't be fooled by the name, these are produced in a laboratory, are very dangerous, and have nothing to do with cannabis.

What is known as 'down' on the street once referred to heroin, but since fentanyl came on the market five or six years ago, it's now a catchall term for opioids. And the drug supply has become extremely varied, McKenna said.

So is it unusual to find such a large amount of benzodiazepine in a product sold as fentanyl?

"The tricky part is, we really don't have any usual," McKenna said.

It's not that heroin wasn't extremely dangerous previously, but the fentanyl crisis has made the situation far worse.

McKenna said historically the evidence shows fentanyl was largely being produced in legitimate pharmaceutical facilities in China. Widespread corruption allowed some of the medical-grade narcotics to be siphoned off and shipped to Canada. It then got mixed, often with a high percentage of caffeine and some sugar, and sold down the supply chain on to the street. However, in the last six months a Chinese government crackdown, combined with the pandemic, has greatly affected the supply line.

But the demand in Canada hasn't waned, so domestic production has begun.

"It's not extremely complicated to make, so we're seen people try to step in and seal that demand," McKenna said.

And he's now seeing more impurities in the fentanyl he's testing.

So why would a drug dealer purposely sell a drug to a customer that could easily kill them? Surely they want the repeat business?

"I'd say the average fentanyl dealer doesn't want to kill their clients, but the unfortunate fact is that street-level dealer who is selling directly to street-level users... doesn't have good knowledge of what is in that product," McKenna said. "Personally speaking... if we have a prohibition model... what you're really doing there is creating a great big barrier between your ability to influence the situation to regulate anything that could be in there."

Most experts believe a drastic change in government policy is needed to solve the problem.

And B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, as well as the B.C. government is on board with change, calling for a safe, regulated supply of drugs to help stem the opioid crisis.

The B.C. Coroner Service's said Aug. 25 that 175 people had died in the province in July. Dr. Henry said having access to a safer supply from the toxic drugs through some form of decriminalization needed to be prioritized.

On Sept. 2, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a safe drug supply was key to fighting overdoses, although stopped short at a call for decriminalization.

The prime minister's words are contrary to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, who in July released a report favouring decriminalization.

As a person on the frontline, Bridgeman says safe supply and decriminalization is something many in the field have been talking about for a long time.

"We need to look at big policy changes in order to really turn this around," she said.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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