Etizolam creates problems for first responders in B.C.’s overdose crisis

Aug 4, 2022

According to recent data released by the BC Coroners Service released on July 14, there were 195 overdose-related deaths in the province in May, as written about here. In addition, the report stated that etizolam, a benzodiazepine analogue that acts as a potent central nervous depressant, has been increasingly detected in toxicological testing.

While etizolam is not licensed in Canada, it has been found in approximately 40% of tests conducted between July 2020 and 2022 on individuals who had died from an overdose in B.C. over the past two years. In contrast, the rate of detection of etizolam in July 2020 was 15%.

Importantly, the drug naloxone, which is used to reverse opioid overdose, is not effective in reversing the effects of etizolam, which can include drowsiness, memory loss, and respiratory arrest.

“Etizolam is a benzodiazepine analogue and non-opioid sedative that does not respond to naloxone and creates life-saving challenges for first responders,” stated the Coroners Service report.

Furthermore, etizolam is considered to be five to 10 times more potent than diazepam, a benzodiazepine that has also been increasingly detected in illicit opioid drugs. However, the Coroners Service report continues to show that fentanyl and its analogues are the predominant drugs detected in overdose drug tests, being detected in 91% of cases.

The report findings also demonstrate the presence of at least one stimulant drug in 73% of the samples, and the presence of at least one benzodiazepine found in 44% of the samples. In addition, 19% of tests indicated the presence of at least one other opioid. Finally, the report shows that the number of overdose-related deaths in the province in 2020 is projected to surpass last year’s toll of 2,265.

“After a catastrophic 2021, I am saddened to report that we are, once again, on pace to lose a record number of our community members in 2022,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner for the BC Coroners Service, in a news release. “The illicit drug supply in this province continues to be volatile and inconsistent, and presents a significant risk to anyone who uses drugs.”

After two months of a modest decline in overdose-related deaths in March and April 2022, the 195 recorded deaths which followed in May is the largest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in that calendar month, and corresponds to a 20% increase in the number of deaths reported in April, and corresponding to an average of about 6.3 deaths per day.