Calgary·The Way Out

What's inside the drugs circulating Calgary? We visited the city police testing lab to find out

Popular drugs like fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine are cut with cheap ingredients to help dealers stretch their supply, according to the Calgary Police Service.

Popular drugs cut with a number of potent and unpredictable substances

What we know about the drugs being sold in Calgary

4 months ago
Duration 3:20
The Calgary Police Service describes what they're finding in drugs seized in the Calgary community. One of the officers' voices has been altered as he’s undercover.

This story is part of a series called The Way Out: Addiction in Alberta. Join the discussion, or read more about the series here.

A banner reads, "The Way Out: Addiction in Alberta."

At the Calgary Police Service headquarters in the city's northeast, there is a sprawling compound of interconnected buildings. 

Inside one of those buildings is what's called the evidence and property room. It's where police keep anything they've seized, especially drugs. 

Sprawled out in front of an undercover officer are small baggies of fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine — the most popular drugs circulating in Calgary right now.

But for anyone buying them, it's not all they're ingesting.

"So you see here what's in it," said Terry, who works with the drug unit. CBC News is not using his real name as it would impact his work. 

He's just scooped some cocaine onto a drug testing machine that can detect approximately 10,000 different elements.

Small, pink grains of a pill sit on a machine waiting to be tested.
A small amount of seized drugs are tested on machine that can detect about 10,000 different elements. (James Young/CBC)

"Diethylene. Bromo-tetramethyl. That's going to be a [benzodiazepine] there and sodium nitrate. And it tells you a little bit what it is.… The sodium nitrate can be a precursor to an explosive."

That's not all he finds. As the day goes on, there are fertilizer agents, colouring agents and products used in industrial and farming processes.

There is another powerful drug creeping into the illicit drug supply that users are being warned about. It's called xylazine and it's used to sedate horses and cattle.

Dealers use cheaper substances to cut, or dilute, popular drugs, stretching their supply to create more profit.

Staff Sgt. Kyle Grant, who works with the CPS undercover unit, says it's a recipe for a more unpredictable and potent drug supply.

"Some of the cutting agents that are put in there are not, they're not fit for human consumption," he said. 

"Drugs are made not to a pharmaceutical grade, and so everybody reacts differently to them."

A chart shows how what percentage of each drug the Calgary Police Service seized in 2022.
The Calgary Police Service provided a glimpse into the types of drugs they saw in the city last year. (Calgary Police Service)

For the past two years in Alberta, at least four people a day, on average, have died from overdosing on illicit drugs, according to provincial statistics.

And the drugs aren't hard to access. It's about five dollars for what's considered one hit of fentanyl or meth. 

But without a test, you can't be sure what you're getting. And overdoses happen fast.

Unpredictable supply

Chelsea Burnham knows about this first hand. She was a drug user and now considers herself in recovery.

She remembers one of the times she overdosed. She was being transported in an ambulance from a supervised consumption site, which is a space where people can bring their own drugs to use in front of trained staff.

"They're like, 'You're having an opiate overdose, but you also seem to be having a barbiturate overdose,'" she said.

"I've never done a barbiturate in my life that I know of."

WATCH | Chelsea Burnham describes how she found her way out of addiction:

What Chelsea Burnham wants people to know about addiction

4 months ago
Duration 1:55
Chelsea Burnham, 31, has been struggling with addiction since she was a teenager. To manage the withdrawal symptoms from heroin and other street drugs, Burnham takes a prescribed opioid called methadone each morning. She says she has found a way out of the chaos of addiction by trying to make a difference in the lives of others.

Grant says benzodiazepines, or "benzos," as they're called, are also commonly being used to cut drugs. They don't react as well to naloxone, which is a medication used to help reverse the effects of an overdose.

Burnham has heard of it happening. 

"It's very scary and we've lost a lot of folks, sadly, to this benzo dope, they call it."

A yellow box holds emergency naloxone. A red handle can be pulled to access the naloxone.
Inside the Calgary lab, an emergency supply of naloxone hangs on the wall. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

On top of the unpredictability of the drug supply, there's also concern about how the drugs are made. 

Toxic hot spots

Back at police headquarters, Terry scoops another sample of fentanyl — 100 times more potent than morphine — putting it into a testing packet. 

The drug looks like pink powder. Dealers use colour as a sales tactic, he explains, to differentiate between products.

"So that's going to be a colouring agent brown, and then your nitric acid and your ammonium bicarbonate," he said.

Two tests later, he still doesn't find a trace of fentanyl. 

A small package with labels showing fentanyl in red and heroin in blue. The substance inside of the package has turned red.
The Calgary Police Service tests drugs to see what is circulating in the community. After several tests, the package shows the presence of fentanyl. (James Young/CBC)

That's because one dose of fentanyl can be the size of a grain of sand, and unless it's picked up in that particular scoop, the sample will test negative.

These drugs are being made in someone's basement with no quality control, Grant says, so the ingredients can be unevenly distributed throughout a pill or powder.

Grant uses the example of a fentanyl tablet, which some people will split into quarters, taking one at a time. 

"So they'll take a quarter, and after a while they're not feeling anything, so they'll take another quarter. Maybe nothing. And take another one," he said. 

"Maybe in that one, all of the fentanyl has gravitated to that one area, which is called a hot spot. And because it's not evenly distributed, it's too much for your system and they overdose."

How do you respond?

As usual, there are varying responses to the problem of an increasingly toxic drug supply.

In B.C., the Centre for Disease Control now uses the terminology "unregulated drug poisoning emergency." And some drug users are being offered pharmaceutical grade drugs — or safe supply — to avoid the dangers of street drugs.

A woman interviewed for this series, who we're calling "Jane," agrees with that approach. She works with people who use drugs and has had patients die because they have overdosed on drugs that were not what they thought they'd be.

We are not naming her because she worries criticizing the province's approach to the drug crisis might result in her losing her job. 

"We need to treat a poisoning crisis. We cannot address it with treatment beds. We need to replace it with regulated drugs. We need to widely make regulated drugs available so people cannot use poison."

A man wearing purple, latex gloves uses a small scoop to pick up tiny, pink grains.
A Calgary police officer scoops a sample of fentanyl out of a bag for further testing. (James Young/CBC)

In Alberta, there's a very different approach. The province has said it will not allow safe supply, and Grant says he supports that.

"I think finding other ways to help addicts rather than giving them a drug or another drug is only beneficial," the staff sergeant said.

"I'm not a medical professional, but if you continue to give somebody drugs, you're still going to end up with the same problems down the line. I think you're just delaying the inevitable."


Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.

With files from Carla Turner