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B.C. to bolster service to test drugs for fentanyl

People stand by as 2,224 wooden stakes, representing the number of confirmed overdose deaths in British Columbia over the past three years, are placed on the ground at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver on Sept. 29, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia is set to expand a program to allow people to check their street drugs for fentanyl, the latest harm-reduction initiative to roll out amid skyrocketing overdose deaths.

The most recent figures from the provincial government show 1,103 confirmed deaths from overdoses of illicit drugs in the first nine months of this year. The year-end total is on pace to be around seven times the annual average in the 2000s.

Judy Darcy, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, called the worsening trend "devastating."

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"That's why we are escalating our response," Ms. Darcy said on Thursday in Victoria. "We're getting safe injectable medication, safe prescription drugs, into the hands of as many people living with addictions as we possibly can. We are getting more access to naloxone, more access to safe injection sites."

Ms. Darcy will be at a news event in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Friday with Mayor Gregor Robertson and representatives of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). The group is expected to announce an expansion in the number of social service facilities where people can check their drugs for the synthetic opioid fentanyl – a VCH initiative being tested in Vancouver.

Officials will also unveil new drug-checking technology they expect will be a Canadian first. In recent years, dealers have been cutting fentanyl into a growing number of street drugs such as heroin.

While Ms. Darcy would not comment on Friday's announcement in advance, she said her fledgling ministry is working on initiatives that include drug checking.

"We are also ramping up … a major anti-stigma campaign and a major campaign to reach out to people who are using alone, because nine out of 10 people who are dying are using alone," she said. "That's about overcoming stigma."

Early data from the VCH drug-checking pilot project last fall showed that people who found fentanyl in their drugs were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose and, as a result, were 25 per cent less likely to overdose.

The latest monthly statistics, released on Thursday, also include for the first time a breakdown of overdose deaths during the week that social assistance cheques are distributed. In the five days after the monthly distribution of cheques this year, an average of six people died each day, compared with 3.6 for all other days of the month.

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This is on par with a study published last year in the International Journal of Drug Policy that found the number of people who died of drug overdoses was 40 per cent higher during cheque weeks than the rest of the month.

As a follow-up to that study, the BCCSU is working on a project to help determine whether events associated with cheque day – including police service calls, emergency room visits and overdose deaths – can be reduced by not sending cheques to all recipients at once or changing payment schedules to every two weeks.

Among other findings released on Thursday: 88 per cent of illicit drug overdoses occurred indoors; men accounted for 83 per cent of all deaths; and no deaths occurred at a supervised-consumption or overdose-prevention site.

Meanwhile, new statistics from Health Canada's Drug Analysis Service (DAS) show a dramatic surge in the presence of fentanyl in heroin samples seized by Canadian law enforcement agencies over the past five years.

In all of 2012, DAS analyzed 2,337 heroin samples, finding fentanyl or an analogue in 0.08 per cent. From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 of 2017, the DAS analyzed 3,337 samples, finding fentanyl or an analogue in 60.1 per cent.

The synthetic opioid was found in less than 2 per cent of cocaine and methamphetamine seized by police this year.

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In B.C., a total of 76 drug samples that were seized tested positive for fentanyl in 2012.

That number jumped to 2,318 this year.

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About the Authors
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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