Surge in fentanyl overdose deaths sparks warning

Vancouver, Langley and Surrey had most fentanyl-linked fatalities in B.C. in 2014

Image from poster on risks of fentanyl overdoses that is part of a new public information campaign.

A spike in fentanyl drug overdose deaths in both Vancouver and the Fraser Health region has prompted a warning from police and public health officials.

Police say the synthetic narcotic is increasingly being sold to drug users in B.C., either on its own or often laced with other drugs – even marijuana.

There were 29 overdose deaths tied to fentanyl in Vancouver in 2014, followed by 18 in Langley and 15 in Surrey, according to deputy chief coroner Vince Stancato of the B.C. Coroners Service.

He said fentanyl deaths also occurred last year in Maple Ridge, Nanaimo, Prince George and Fort St. John.

Many victims are described as recreational users who snorted, smoked or took pills they thought were another drug – such as cocaine, heroin or oxycodone – without realizing it contained fentanyl, which officials say is 50 to 100 times more toxic and can kill in small doses.

Fentanyl was present in just five per cent of drug overdose deaths in 2012, but that soared to 25 per cent of the 336 overdose deaths in B.C. last year, according to the coroners’ service.

Most victims were not injection drug users.

“It’s very concerning,” said Dr. Marcus Lem, a medical health officer for Fraser Health. “These are folks that often may not appear to anybody else to have an issue.”

Lem said many overdoses happen in private homes and the number of deaths in communities like Langley and Maple Ridge show the problem is not just limited to urban areas where drug use is most visible.

“Everybody in the public seems to think the only people using drugs are in the Downtown Eastside. That’s just not true.”

While fentanyl patches are sometimes stolen from pharmacies or prescribed and then resold on the street, VPD and RCMP officials said they believe much of the fentanyl now showing up is illegally manufactured and arriving in powder, liquid or pill form.

Particularly at risk, they said, are recreational drug users, such as a rave attendee who decides to try a pill she’s given but has no tolerance for a drug as potent as fentanyl.

“We’re finding fentanyl is cut into just about any other drug you can buy on the street,” said Sandra Glendinning of the Vancouver Police Department. “Heroin, marijuana, cocaine, oxycodone.”

She said no deaths have been linked to fentanyl-laced marijuana but it is being sold in B.C. and putting people who think they’re just using pot at higher risk.

Several agencies have joined forces to launch an information website on the risks of fentanyl at www.knowyoursource.ca.