Fentanyl has become a factor in an increasing number of drug overdose deaths in B.C. and is being unknowingly consumed by both serious addicts and recreational drug users.
Dr. Jane Buxton, with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says the number of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl has risen from five percent to 25 per cent over the last three years.
"What we know is that people who are what we call naive, who have not previously taken opioids, [for them] it can be extremely dangerous and even fatal," she said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is roughly 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine. Toxic levels of the drug were ingested by a North Vancouver couple who were found dead in their home on July 20, the B.C. Coroners Service confirmed Wednesday.
Hardy and Amelia Leighton — both in their 30s — are survived by their two-year-old son Magnus.
Jim Parsons, Hardy Leighton's uncle, told CBC News that his nephew wasn't a habitual drug user.
"To me it was just a tragic accident, it was terrible. It's the worst case scenario any family could ask for," he said.
Buxton says fentanyl is an effective painkiller, but is only prescribed in Canada in the form of a patch that is applied to the skin and released over time.
"What we're seeing is [fentanyl] powder and tablets, which is from an illicit market, being circulated throughout B.C. in fact, and across Canada," she said.
Recreational users at risk
She says fentanyl is being mixed in and passed off as other drugs because it is a cheaper ingredient and allows those manufacturing and selling the drugs to turn a higher a profit.
Buxton said that while heroin users are at a risk of injecting heroin that is partially or entirely fentanyl, recreational users might come across fentanyl in other drugs.
"It's also being sold in tablets, what's called green meanies or green jellies, and people who are buying the drugs think they're getting something else. They may think they're getting a prescription drug such as Oxycodone," she said.
"What we're seeing is people who are seriously affected are not injecting the drug, they may be smoking or they may be inhaling the drug…and possibly just using on a weekend."
Buxton said that while fentanyl has been found along with marijuana and other drugs in police seizures, she is not aware of any cases where marijuana has been laced with fentanyl.
In March of this year, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control partnered with healthcare providers and law enforcement agencies throughout the province in a fentanyl awareness campaign called Know Your Source.
Buxton said that zero drug use is the safest use, but says there are some safety measures people can follow when taking drugs.
"Make sure that they're with somebody to dial 911 if things start happening or if they're concerned, don't mix the drugs, and start with just a small amount, testing it before using more."
To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled: BCCDC says fentanyl is a danger to many