Drug alert issued after ‘extreme’ levels of fentanyl and benzodiazepines found in B.C. drug samples

Mar 15, 2022

Earlier in February, B.C.’s Interior Health Authority issued a toxic drug alert for the region due to “extreme” levels of fentanyl and benzodiazepines detected in tested drug samples. According to the health agency, multiple samples were found to contain up to 55% fentanyl, up from the average of 10%. Moreover, levels of the benzodiazepine etizolam were found to be 23% higher than average. A report released by the B.C. coroners’ service demonstrates that there were a record 2,224 suspected overdose deaths in the province last year, which corresponds to a 26% increase over the previous year.

In her interview with CBC News, Dr. Carol Fenton, the medical health officer for Interior Health, said the drug samples were obtained from individuals who brought them to drug-testing sites in order to be checked and are not necessarily representative of the full scope of illegal drugs currently in circulation. “There is no quality control. There is no labelling system. When you buy drugs outside the legal system, there’s no way to really know what you have,” said Dr. Fenton.

In addition, the warning issued by the health authority also mentioned the importance of being wary of drugs being sold as “downers,” which is a term referring to drugs that depress the nervous system. “They would be sometimes sold as heroin or fentanyl or just a generic down product,” said Dr. Fenton.

Fentanyl has driven numerous overdoses over the last years due to its high potency (approximately 100 times more potent than morphine) and low overdose threshold. “Even an amount the size of a grain of sand can cause an overdose. That’s why it’s so difficult for someone to dose themselves safely,” said Dr. Fenton. She added that while the effects of opioids such as fentanyl can be reversed with the drug naloxone, those of benzodiazepines cannot.

Furthermore, Dr. Fenton said that stigma surrounding drug use has presented challenges to introducing widespread, government-regulated safe supply. “We would need physicians willing to prescribe it and given the history of how opioid prescriptions have been enforced by the colleges as well as the stigma surrounding drug use … it’s very difficult,” she said.

“The vulnerable populations and the folks that we work with are experiencing a lot of challenges right now … we really need options like more safer supply available.”

Martzke, the co-ordinator of a drug checking program with ANKORS in Nelson, B.C., said there has been increased demand for the program’s drug-related services, including access to safe supply, drug checking, and overdose prevention.

“People of all shapes and sizes and colours and backgrounds and income status use drugs … that person that uses drugs could be your neighbour or your friend or your daughter or your dad.”