According to recent data released by the B.C. Coroners Service, benzodiazepines have been increasingly detected in B.C.’s illicit drug supply, and have been found in 55 of the 192 fatal overdoses in July. Furthermore, it was found that the detection rate incidence of benzodiazepines has increased from 15% to 52% between January 2020 and January 2022.
Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive sedative drugs that are prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. When combined with opioids such as fentanyl, benzodiazepines increase the risk of fatal overdose due to their sedative effects on the nervous system. In recent years, benzodiazepines have been increasingly detected in the illicit drug supply and have been linked to numerous deadly overdoses.
In his interview with CBC News, Dr. Paxton Bach, co-medical director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said benzodiazepines are being found in as much as 40% of opioids tested in the province.
“We already know our drug supply is volatile and unpredictable. The amount of fentanyl people are getting exposed to is very variable, and that alone causes enormous amounts of danger,” said Bach. “When you add in other sedatives like benzodiazepines and other psychoactive substances, it makes the outcome that much more unpredictable, and it makes bad outcomes very, very possible and likely,” he added.
In addition, Bach said that consuming a combination of benzodiazepines and opioids can lead to significant periods of blackout that can last for days, making individuals particularly vulnerable to theft, assault, and sexual assault. In addition, consuming benzodiazepines for longer periods of time can cause withdrawal and seizures.
“The Narcan, the antidote to overdoses, doesn’t work on that component of the overdose,” added Dr. Bach. “What that leads to is really long overdoses, overdoses where people might end up requiring more Narcan than they need.”
Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said it is unclear why the prevalence of benzodiazepine-laced opioids, also known as “benzo-dope,” has increased over the past two years, but also suggested that it could be due to the associated accessibility and profit.
“Sometimes I think it’s just easier to get certain drugs than others,” she said. “We see all kinds of additives to the drugs, so really it’s just a terrible situation and people have just gotten accustomed to putting whatever they want in it. Everyone’s just trying to make a bit of extra money.”
Due to record numbers of fatal overdoses in B.C., the province announced it will provide $22.6 million to health authorities to develop a safe supply infrastructure. “We need to invest in these programs and get them moving faster,” said Blyth. “We should just find a way to get a safe drug supply to people who are using drugs who are not going to stop using drugs right now. We need to stabilize people’s lives.”