The number of illicit drug overdose deaths in which fentanyl was detected has been steadily increasing over the past few years, but the majority of deaths are still being caused by other drugs — including cocktails of different drugs taken together — says the B.C. Coroners Service.
According to new statistics from the agency, preliminary data shows that the proportion of illicit drug overdose deaths in which fentanyl was detected was approximately 31 per cent in 2015 — up from 25 per cent the previous year and only five per cent in 2012.
"Fentanyl certainly is a problem, it's just not the only problem," said B.C. Coroners Service spokeswoman Barb McLintock, adding that although the proportion of drug overdoses that involve fentanyl is increasing, "it is still less than one in two."
"So the last thing we want is for people who use illicit drugs to think, 'Well if I can just avoid the dreaded fentanyl everything else is fine.'"
"No, it isn't. Your chances are still greater of dying without fentanyl from a drug overdose than it is dying with fentanyl."
McLintock said the B.C. Coroners Service doesn't know how responsible fentanyl was in non-fatal overdoses, as the service does not have jurisdiction over that.
Fentanyl not always responsible in overdose spikes
Spikes in overdose deaths around the province over the last few months have caused some officials to suspect that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is roughly 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine, has been to blame.
However, in one of those instances — in which nine overdose deaths occurred in the Greater Victoria-area over a period of 16 days — toxicology reports showed that only two of the nine deaths involved fentanyl.
"The other seven were various mixtures of the more traditional street drugs: heroin, cocaine and crystal meth," McLintock said.
However, whether or not fentanyl is involved, she said the number of drug overdose deaths is increasing "at far too rapid a rate."
Across the province there were 474 illicit drug overdose deaths last year — an increase of 30 per cent from the year before.
In January and February of 2015 there were 72 overdose deaths in B.C. This year there have been nearly double that number of deaths in those same two months.
"If this doesn't slow down, we could be getting 750 or 800 by the end of this year, which is way too many," McLintock said.
"A lot of these are young people. They're in their 20s. They're in their 30s, so we're losing a lot of years of life that could be very productive for these people if they could get off the illicit drugs."
Mixing different drugs
McLintock said that the B.C. Coroners Service has observed that many drug overdoses are what they call "mixed drug overdoses" — overdoses involving two or three of the following: heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and fentanyl.
She said academic research makes it clear that a mixture of drugs is far more dangerous than taking any one drug by itself, as the drugs tend to react badly with each other.
"So one of the things we'd really like to try and figure out for example is whether the people that are doing that know they are taking a whole bunch of different drugs, or are they just getting pills or tablets from their dealer and somewhere up the line it's been mixed to give them all these different drugs?"
McLintock also said that many of those dying from drug overdoses are "steady, regular drug users" so one might assume they would know how much to take — which she said gives the agency another reason to be concerned about what exactly is causing the increasing number of overdose deaths..
She also warned that anyone using drugs should not use them alone, and should immediately seek medical attention if someone using drugs is having troubling breathing, talking, or appears to be falling asleep.
With files from CBC's All Points West
To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Fentanyl not solely to blame for spike in drug overdose deaths in Victoria area last December