British Columbia

Powell River latest community to see illicit drugs contaminated by benzodiazepine

Just days after Powell River got an overdose prevention site set up, a warning went out to drug users in the small, coastal community that a bad batch of drugs was contaminating supply, causing troubling overdose symptoms.

Vancouver Coastal Health issued an alert about the bad drugs, days after local OD prevention site opened

Powell River is the latest place to find illicit drugs contaminated with benzodiazepines on its streets. (Government of B.C.)

Just days after Powell River got an overdose prevention site set up, a warning went out to drug users in the small, coastal community that a bad batch of drugs was contaminating supply, causing troubling overdose symptoms.

The warning, sent Monday through Vancouver Coastal Health's drug alert system, revealed the geographic reach of a drug supply that was apparently contaminated by benzodiazepines, a family of sedative drugs that includes Valium and Xanax. 

"Red down in Powell River causing blackouts, memory loss and difficulty waking up that may be caused by benzo contamination. Use at [an overdose prevention site]. Call 911," read the warning sent out through Vancouver Coastal Health's drug alert system.

"Down" refers to sedative street drugs like heroin.

Xanax, a benzodiazepine, is shown. Benzos, as they are typically called, are usually prescribed to treat anxiety and have a sedative-like effect. Officials say the benzos found in street drugs are generally manufactured for the illicit market. (Alex Lynch/CBC)

For Powell River city councillor Maggie Hathaway, who has led the city's response to the overdose crisis, news of the new contamination and strange overdose symptoms came as a surprise.

"I was quite shocked," said Hathaway, who learned this week that overdoses caused by benzodiazepines — also known as benzos — can't be reversed using naloxone, which works with opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

Health officials advise that overdoses involving benzos are complex, and people should always call 911. 

In recent weeks, Vancouver Coastal Health has issued several warnings about benzo contamination via its RADAR alert system, which people can subscribe to via text message and also make reports of bad drugs.

Before this week, the benzo warnings had been limited to urban centres.

Vancouver Coastal Health issued a warning about benzo contamination via its RADAR drug alert system this week. (CBC)

Powell River, along with most communities, has struggled with the overdose crisis. According to Vancouver Coastal Health, it has the second highest fatal overdose rate in the health authority's region, after Vancouver.

The exact number of deaths in the Powell River area, which has about 20,000 people, isn't released as a matter of privacy. But in 2018, there were 39 overdose deaths in the North Shore-Coast Garibaldi area, which includes North and West Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler and the Sunshine Coast.

"Part of the explanation why our per capita deaths are so high is because anyone who uses here, uses here, because there's no way out," said Hathaway, adding that drug users in other communities can more easily make their way to places like Vancouver.

"I mean I think pretty much if you buy drugs in Powell River, you're getting fentanyl," she said. "Basically, can it get any worse? Apparently yes."

Hathaway said the city's new overdose prevention site — a small trailer where two people can consume drugs at once — has been getting plenty of use since it opened last Thursday, but the stigma drug users in the community face is still a major hurdle, and people still use drugs alone.

A new overdose prevention site in Powell River opened its doors for the first time on in early July. (Twitter/ Vancouver Coastal Health)

With the addition of benzos to the unknown mix of substances in the drugs being sold on the street in Powell River, Hathaway is worried about more deaths.

"Down the road — and I know people are talking about this, and it gets some people really upset, but maybe we have to be able to provide clean drugs," she said. "A safe supply."


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Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker

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