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Regulate all illicit drugs to stem opioid tide: medical health officer

‘Cocaine’ was really fentanyl, Downtown Eastside supervised injection facility test finds

All illicit drugs should be regulated to avoid situations such as a recent incident in which a buyer seeking cocaine was sold a white powder tested as 20% fentanyl, a Vancouver Coastal Health medical officer says.

“In public health, we believe all psychoactive substances should be regulated,” Dr. Mark Lysyshyn said. “The big one now is opioids.”

“We have a controlled cannabis market now,” he said, explaining people wouldn’t be buying white powder expecting it to cocaine and finding fentanyl in a regulated market.

The issue arose after a bad-drug alert was issued for Vancouver cocaine users Jan. 2 after what was thought to be coke was tested at the Insite safe injection site and found to be fentanyl, the deadly drug that has claimed thousands of B.C. lives

Vancouver Coastal Health spokeswoman Tiffany Akins said the alert noted the drugs appeared as white powder sold in small brown paper flaps in the Downtown Eastside. IT was 20% fentanyl cut with lactose.

The powder was tested at the Insite facility on Hastings Street where the fentanyl-lactose mix was revealed.

The person with the drugs did not overdose, Akins said.

“What was suspicious about it is there was no cocaine in it,” medical health officer Lysyshyn said. “We don’t think there’s a big problem with cocaine being replaced with fentanyl.”

The alert went out through the Real-time Drug Alert & Response (RADAR) system.

The program lets people report information such as the date of the overdose, where the drug was purchased, types of substances believed used and the physical description of the substances. Participants can also upload a photo of the drug and/or its packaging. 

People do not have to provide their names or contact information.

Akins stressed drug users should not use alone, start using with a small amount of drugs, not mix drugs – including alcohol – and use where help is available.

She said it’s important for people to use strategies to prevent overdoses – and that the best way to prevent an overdose is to not use illegal drugs and have drugs tested before use at an overdose prevention site or supervised consumption site. 

Overdoses, many related to fentanyl, claimed 1,486 lives in B.C. in 2017. By Nov. 30, there had already been 1,380 deaths.

By November, the overdose death rate was averaging four people per day.