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An intravenous drug user injects heroin in Vancouver's downtown Eastside.

John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The BC Coroners Service has warned of a spike in drug overdose deaths resulting from potent heroin and is urging users to seek help from services such as Vancouver's supervised injection site to protect themselves.

"Drug users should never be alone when ingesting drugs, and, where possible, should use available community services such as Insite or needle exchanges, where access to medical care is available," the agency said Thursday in an information bulletin.

The agency says there were more than 20 cases of heroin-related overdoses in the first four months of this year - more than double the amount in the same period in 2010. The drug is also believed to be a factor in several other recent cases for which toxicology results are pending.

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The majority of deaths have been in the Lower Mainland, regional coroner Vincent Stancato said Thursday.

"We're seeing these fatalities in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Surrey, Burnaby, Vancouver - we're seeing them generally in the Lower Mainland," Mr. Stancato said, adding that five deaths have been in the city of Vancouver.

Kelowna RCMP on Tuesday linked the deaths of two men, both in their 20s, to heroin use and warned that "toxic" heroin was likely being sold in the region.

The Vancouver-based Insite clinic is the only sanctioned, supervised injection site in the country, and is operated by Vancouver Coastal Health and PHS Community Services Society. It was formed in part in response to a wave of drug overdose deaths in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The supervised injection site opened in 2003 and, for the past few years, has fought a legal battle to stay open in the face of opposition from the federal Conservative government. Two B.C. court rulings have supported the facility on jurisdictional and constitutional grounds.

Next week, the Supreme Court of Canada is slated to hear the federal government's appeal of a B.C. court ruling that has allowed the clinic to remain open.

The warning on heroin-related deaths, and the recommendation to drug users to go to Insite, is not related to the pending court case, Mr. Stancato said, adding that the agency based its warning on its own provincewide records and information from the RCMP.

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"This message was strictly based on the statistics that we were seeing and the information that police provided to us about the current level of potency of street-level heroin," he said.

RCMP tests showed heroin dealt to users in some areas is at least twice as potent as usual.

There have been no overdose deaths at Insite since it began operating in 2003, PHS spokesman Mark Townsend said on Thursday.

In an average month, Insite staff conduct 20 to 25 "overdose interventions" - providing oxygen, medication or other assistance to drug users who are at risk of overdosing. In the past 30 days, the facility has logged 36 such interventions, Mr. Townsend said, adding that it is not known whether the increase is related to the stronger street drugs mentioned in the coroners' bulletin.

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