Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service (DAS) has confirmed that the presence of fentanyl found in heroin seized across the country by the Canada Border Services Agency, Correctional Service of Canada, and police forces has risen nearly 60 per cent since 2012, and 2000 per cent in all street drugs tested in that same time frame.
Medical professionals are not surprised at this drastic upswing, since the increase in positive results in drug testing already correlates with a far bleaker statistic—the number of opioid overdose deaths currently on the rise as part of the national opioid crisis. According to Dr. David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto,
“The illicit drug supply has never been more dangerous because of the profusion of fentanyl-related compounds …This is why so many people are dying. They’re dying because the drugs they’re using contain, you know, much more opioid than they thought.”
In 2016 alone, 2,816 people died of “apparent opioid-related” causes across the country.
In 2012, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, makers of Oxycontin, tried to make its drug harder to crush and melt in an effort to keep it from being abused, but this only led to addicts reliant on overly-prescribed opioids like Oxycontin turning to street drugs in an effort to avoid the painful withdrawals.
Dealers prefer fentanyl because it is powerful and cheap, and can be easily mixed into heroin to spread supplies as far as they will go and bring in as much profit as possible, but they do not possess the necessary knowledge or expertise to mix fentanyl without lethal results.
For opioid addicts like Torontonian Leon Alward, the risk of overdosing on fentanyl isn’t enough to keep him from using. “The thought of the [withdrawal] sickness that I know is going to come if I don’t use far outweighs the risk of using,” he said. “It sounds ridiculous, I know that, I understand that. But for an IV user, nobody knows what it’s like … Every time we use we’re taking our lives into our hands.”
Clinics have been set up across the country to help people addicted to opioids, providing drug use supplies like clean needles and spoons as well as supervision for users and access to naloxone to reverse the effects of overdose. At Toronto’s Moss Park, volunteers and workers oversee injections as well as stop and reverse overdoses when possible.
For Nick Boyce, a harm reduction volunteer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, the new data gathered about the presence of fentanyl is helpful. “We’re starting to see different kinds of reactions that we never used to in terms of how people overdose or the symptoms,” he said. “Getting some better analysis would really help to understand why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.”