Toxic street drugs in Thunder Bay are increasing overdose and death rates

Mar 22, 2023

According to a recent analysis published by CBC News using data provided by Path 525, the only safe consumption site in northwestern Ontario, the spike in drug-related overdoses and death rates in Thunder Bay is largely driven by an increasingly toxic street drug supply.

In 2022, Path 525 responded to 67% more overdoses compared to 2021. Moreover, in January 2023, Path 525 responded to 28 overdoses, which is the highest overdose number it handled in a single month since its opening in November 2018.

“It was a very difficult month for the community,” said Jennifer Lawrence, director of health services for NorWest Community Health Centre that runs Path 525, in her interview with CBC News.

The significantly increasing overdose rate has been attributed largely to adulterants and dangerous substances being present in the illicit drug supply. For instance, drug analysis carried out by Path 525 showed that only 11% of cocaine samples contained pure cocaine, and over half of the samples contained no cocaine.

Furthermore, many Path 525 clients thought they had bought drugs from a reliable dealer, according to Keesha Bauer, coordinator of Path 525’s consumption, treatment, and services.

Many of the drug samples tested also contained phenacetin, a pain and fever relief drug that was banned in Canada in 1973, due to causing kidney and liver damage, as well as cancer.

“You may get a batch [of street drugs] one time that is OK. The next day, you go to get a batch, it might not be OK, and that’s just the reality of the unpredictable drug supply that’s out there in Thunder Bay right now,” said Bauer.

Currently, the most common substances people are bringing to Path 525 for testing are fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamines.

In order to make the drug supply safer, healthcare workers are aiming to provide safer alternatives. Currently, Path 525 is running a safer supply pilot program that is funded by Health Canada through its Substance Use and Addictions Program. Accordingly, some clients have been filling safer supply prescriptions at Path 525, with others receiving wraparound services.

However, Lawrence noted that Ontario does not cover drug substitutes that are as potent as what individuals buy on the street, making them less effective.

Moreover, Lawrence said that it may be more effective for primary-care facilities to deliver safer supply programs, since many Path 525 clients have broader health concerns that could be better addressed by primary practitioners.

“I think that provincially and federally, there needs to be an appetite to look at the opioid crisis and what needs to happen in the short and long term, and provide the resources required in communities to help address what’s going on,” said Lawrence.