British Columbia

Fentanyl rise in B.C. linked to opioid clampdown, say health officials

Health officials say a clampdown on opioids like oxycodone appears to be fuelling the illegal fentanyl market, as B.C. sees a seven-fold increase in fentanyl-related deaths.

Illegal drug market flooded with cheap and easy-to-manufacture fentanyl

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller, is flooding the illegal drug market and has been involved in a rash of drug overdoses across Canada. (CBC)

The rapid rise in fentanyl-related overdoses is likely related to a clampdown on prescription opioids like oxycodone, according to two officials.

"I think there's a connection between...the changes in availability of some of the longer-acting prescription opioids and the rise of fentanyl," said deputy provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

"When one opioid is harder to obtain...then something else tends to step in," said Dr. Jane Buxton, a specialist in harm reduction at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

"We are seeing a lot of overdoses occurring when people are taking what they think is oxycodone. The (fentanyl) powder is coming in and being pressed into tablets that very closely resembles a pharmaceutical that people have been using in the past."

Henry and Buxton were reacting to a bulletin issued by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse documenting the alarming growth in the number of fentanyl-related deaths

B.C. has seen a seven-fold increase in fentanyl-involved deaths, from 13 in 2012 to 90 in 2014.

The B.C. Coroners Service says there have been 54 drug overdose deaths in which fentanyl was detected between January and May this year alone.

In addition, there have been at least 12 deaths in which fentanyl was detected within the past month, almost all of them occurring in the Lower Mainland.

Drug testing kits useless

Henry says the illegal drug market appears to be flooded with fentanyl powder that is "potentially coming in from abroad."

Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo. (Canadian Press)

Compared to other opioids fentanyl is cheap and easy to manufacture, and it's showing up in many different street drugs without buyers being made aware of its presence.

"We did a study where we asked people what they had taken and then we tested their urine," said Henry. "Over 70 per cent of the people where fentanyl was detected did not know, or did not think, they had taken fentanyl."

Henry added the only way to test for fentanyl is with sophisticated lab equipment, so quick drug testing kits are useless.

"We're hearing about the drug checking that occurs at some of the music festivals. That [kind of] testing does not detect fentanyl."


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