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Peer Study: Overdose Deaths Linked to Drugs Cut With Fentanyl

David was the middle child in a middle class family who grew up in Dunbar, Vancouver. His sister Lorrie talks about what David was like and how the family was devastated when he died of an overdose related to fentanyl.

While some people may intentionally seek out fentanyl, recent evidence suggests that many of the fentanyl-related deaths in BC are from individuals unknowingly consuming fentanyl. The BCCDC harm reduction team undertook a study to help ascertain the risks, developed through consultation with peers at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and staff at various harm reduction supply distribution sites and detox facilities.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid which is much more potent than morphine and heroin. Fentanyl-detected overdose deaths in British Columbia increased from 5% of total illicit drug deaths in 2012 to over 25% in 2014, signaling an emerging public health concern. This was particularly evident following a cluster of 30 overdoses at a safe injection site in Vancouver over the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend.

Almost three-quarters of participants who tested positive for fentanyl did not report using it.

Study participants who attended harm reduction services at 21 sites across BC completed an anonymous questionnaire describing what drugs they used within the last three days, and provided a urine sample to test for fentanyl. Data was collected over 2 months and 246 surveys were analyzed.

Nearly 29% of participants tested positive for fentanyl, 73% of which did not report fentanyl use within the previous three days. This suggests that other substances are being cut with fentanyl, increasing the risk of overdose for people who do not use opioids. Crystal meth use was found to be associated with fentanyl detection suggesting that even stimulants may be contaminated.

The results of this study demonstrate that illicit fentanyl abuse represents a considerable health risk to people who use drugs in BC, particularly among those who consume it unintentionally. The widespread use of crystal meth and association with fentanyl detection suggest that these users may be at particular risk of opioid overdose and could benefit from targeted harm reduction strategies, such as take home naloxone programs. Although public health agencies have taken steps to combat this trend, further engagement is necessary to reduce the impact of illicit fentanyl on this vulnerable population.

Read the Community Report on this study >>

Recognize A Fentanyl (or Opioid) Overdose

If an overdose is suspected, call 911 immediately.

Early signs of fentanyl overdose include severe sleepiness, slow heartbeat, difficulty breathing, cold/clammy skin, and trouble with walking or talking.

For more, check out the Fentanyl section on our website >>


50 to 100X More Toxic Than Morphine

Fentanyl is an opioid that is prescribed to treat chronic pain. You can’t see it, smell it or taste it but if your drug of choice is cut with fentanyl, it can kill you.

RCMP and municipal police forces in BC have found illicitly manufactured fentanyl being sold in:

  • Pill form sold as fake oxys and other club drugs
  • Powder form as heroin or fent
  • Powder form mixed into other drugs (cocaine, crystal meth, etc)