Study finds fentanyl in nearly all heroin sold in Vancouver

Aug 24, 2018

A recent study led by the B.C. Centre on Substance Abuse (BCCSU) has revealed that nearly all substances labeled as heroin sold in Vancouver contain the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.

By allowing users to voluntarily check their street drugs for additionally harmful substances, the BCCSU was able to compile enough data to show that fentanyl is the most ubiquitous component of street opioids in Vancouver. Conversely, when the study tested stimulants and hallucinogens, it revealed that this class of drugs contains fewer unpublicized substances. The BCCSU plans to publish their results in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal this September.

When conducting the research for the BCCSU, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) used fentanyl testing strips and an infrared spectrometer to test 1,714 street drug samples from November 2017 to April 2018 in two supervised consumption sites in the city’s Downtown Eastside.

VCH Medical health officer Mark Lysyshyn, who co-authored the study with Kenneth Tupper, Karen McCrae, Ian Garber, and Evan Wood, believes the results highlight shocking levels of fentanyl contamination. As per the results of the street drug tests:

Of all the samples, 58.7% were expected to contain fentanyl; alarmingly, that number rose to 90.6% in the field.

Only 17.6% of the “heroin” samples contained any heroin at all, with the most common imposter substances posing as heroin being sugar alcohol, caffeine, and, of course, fentanyl.

When testing stimulants, 5.9% were revealed to contain fentanyl. Purported speed and crystal meth contained elements of their namesakes in at least 87.9% of the samples tested, and crack and cocaine were shown to contain crack and cocaine 91.4% of the time. Fentanyl was detected in 5.9% of speed or meth, while appearing at 2.1% in crack or cocaine. When the study tested psychedelics like MDMA, mushrooms, and LSD, 86.5% contained an amount of the labeled substance, and none contained fentanyl at all.

“Something like 60% of the drugs that we check are not what people think they are,” Dr. Lysyshyn said. “We’ve always had the idea that drugs could be something different, but right now [the contamination rate] is really high.”

However, Dr. Lysyshyn does not want the study’s results to be taken as a green light to use tested drugs without caution. The tested drugs, if found to be free of fentanyl and other opioids, are still not considered safe for consumption.

“I don’t think the purpose of drug checking is to say, ‘These are safe; take them recklessly.’ That’s not what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re saying, here’s a bit more information about these substances; they still could be risky. Because even if you find out there’s no fentanyl in your heroin, heroin causes overdoses, too. We don’t want people to forget all about the other harm-reduction advice that we’re giving; this is just additional information that we think could be helpful.”

The pilot project does not represent the entire street drug market, but does give insight into the workings of Vancouver’s safe consumption sites and street drug users. In addition to revealing the contents of certain street drugs, the study also showed that drug users who discover that their drugs contain fentanyl are ten times more likely to take a smaller dose, which makes them 25% less likely to suffer from an overdose.