Dangerous new mix of opioids and benzo-type drug has no overdose antidote, Alberta health officials warn

Doctors are warning that a new mix of street drugs has no antidote for overdose victims.

AHS issued warning after ERs reported cases of patients not responding to naloxone

Dr. Mark Yarema is the medical director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

Doctors are warning that a new mix of street drugs has no antidote for overdose victims.

In June, Alberta Health Services issued a public notice that in B.C., street opioids were being produced with a drug called etizolam.

That drug is similar to "benzos" (benzodiazepines) such as Valium, Xanax and Ativan. 

The overdose symptoms are similar to an opioid overdose — users may look drowsy, have slurred speech, poor coordination, memory loss and breathing difficulties. 

But unlike with opioids, naloxone won't prevent the overdose as the drugs work on a different pathway in users' brains. 

(That being said, doctors say naloxone should still be used, as it could at least reverse the effects of the opioid the drug is paired with).

Dr. Mark Yarema, the medical director of Alberta's Poison and Drug Information Service, said he started receiving reports in April or May from emergency rooms and safe consumption sites in Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge that have seen cases where drug users overdose on what medical workers believe are opioids, but the patients don't respond to naloxone.

Etizolam mix may be the cause. 

"Now, whether it contributed to the deaths or not is unclear, but it is something we wanted to make the public aware of," Yarema said. 

Yarema wants health-care workers to understand that if a patient doesn't respond to naloxone, this might be why.

Etizolam is mostly used for research purposes, but it's also prescribed in some countries to treat panic attacks and insomnia.

It's not prescribed for use in North America. 

When added to opioids on the black market, it's used as a filler, or to enhance the effect of the drug.

With files from Reid Southwick


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?