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'It's a really diverse population that's being affected': B.C. overdoses killing non-addicts, partiers

The pattern of overdoses in B.C. is reframing the fentanyl crisis: It’s not just about addicts any more, according to the director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

A growing number of casual drug users and weekend partiers are overdosing on recreational drugs, such as cocaine, that has been contaminated with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“That changes the whole conversation from heroin and who we think these victims are to one of the contamination of the entire drug supply,” said Dr. Evan Wood. “We need some out-of-the box thinking on this. Addiction treatment is not relevant to people who are experimenting with drugs.”

Wood called for a massive expansion of drug-testing facilities as a way to “dramatically improve public safety.”

Seventeen-year-old Esquimalt high school student Heather McLean died of a suspected overdose on Easter Sunday. McLean was known to use drugs and alcohol with her friends, according to her stepmother Tamsin Stratford. 

Heather told Stratford: “Don’t worry. I know who I’m getting my drugs from. I pay $20 extra to make sure there’s no fentanyl.”

Heather McLean, 17, was a Grade 12 student in Esquimalt. She died on Easter Sunday of a suspected fentanyl overdose.

Late last year in Delta, a group of nine people in their 20s bought what they thought was cocaine, split the drugs and headed their separate ways. Not long after came a spate of 911 calls and eight of them ended up in the emergency room with respiratory distress. 

Delta Police said the reason the group was hit so hard is they were not used to taking such powerful drugs. 

“With these drugs now, you might as well pick up a loaded handgun and play Russian roulette,” said Acting Sgt. Sarah Swallow.

Wood recalled the story of a young man pulled over on his way to his girlfriend’s house and snorted what he thought was a line of cocaine.

“It was contaminated with fentanyl and he was alone in the car and died,” said Wood. “It’s a really diverse population that’s being affected, including non-addicted people.”

A huge uptick in the number of addicts entering maintenance programs with opioid substitutes, such as methadone or suboxone, has failed to slow the pace of overdose deaths. 

The rate of deaths due to overdose with illicit drugs was up 50 per cent in the first three months of 2017 compared with the same period last year in Vancouver, but also in Richmond, South Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and the Northern Interior.

In all, 602 overdose deaths in 2016 occurred in communities outside Vancouver and Surrey, about 60 per cent.

The top four drugs detected in overdose victims were cocaine (48.8 per cent), fentanyl (43.1 per cent), heroin (37.1 per cent) and meth/amphetamine (29.6 per cent), according to the report from the B.C. Coroners Service. Fentanyl alone and in combination with other drugs was detected in 61 per cent of overdose deaths.

The number of overdose deaths among people aged 19-29 has risen from around 40 a year between 2007 and 2010, to more than 200 last year.

“Risk-taking behaviour and sensation-seeking are more prevalent in men and in particular young men,” said Wood. “More than 80 per cent of the deaths (this year) are men, so it’s really important to better target our responses and our messaging.”

Wood views the contamination of party drugs with inexpensive opioids and animal tranquillizers as the inevitable outcome of prohibition.

“Increasingly concentrated and dangerous drugs are not a surprise. It started with opium and slowly became more and more potent,” said. “We saw the same thing during the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s when cheap methyl alcohol was introduced into the supply and people started going blind from it.”

rshore@postmedia.com

With a file from Sarah Petrescu, Victoria Times Colonist

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http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/its-a-really-diverse-population-thats-being-affected-overdoses-killing-non-addicts-partiers