One-in-five injection drug users in Vancouver exposed to fentanyl

published on February 9, 2018

One-in-five injection drug users in Vancouver have tested positive for fentanyl, according to a new study published by researchers at the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU).

Unlike previous reports that look at the prevalence of fentanyl in opioid overdose deaths, this is the first report on non-fatal exposure to fentanyl.

“This is the first, and to date most comprehensive, snapshot of how prevalent fentanyl is in the illicit drug supply,” says Dr. Kanna Hayashi, research scientist at BCCSU and St. Paul’s Hospital Chair in Substance Use Research at Simon Fraser University. “The high rate of fentanyl exposure among people who inject drugs is particularly concerning, and

highlights the need for targeted overdose prevention efforts as well as scaling up access to treatments such as opioid agonist therapies.”

Scientists administered urine drug screens to detect recent exposure to fentanyl and eight other substances among 669 people who use drugs in Vancouver between June 16 and October 26, 2016. They found that 14.5% of all individuals who use drugs had been exposed to fentanyl within the past three days. Among injection drug users, that figure jumped to 19.7%.

Researchers also found that those who used both opioids and stimulants were among the most vulnerable to fentanyl exposure. Further, 5% of those testing positive for fentanyl reported having used stimulants but not opioids, suggesting that stimulant drugs that are combined with fentanyl may be less prevalent than heroin adulterated with fentanyl, but nonetheless may exist in the local drug market.

Individuals consuming stimulants combined with fentanyl may be at an elevated risk for overdose, as they may be less likely to expect being exposed to fentanyl, pointing to the need for drug checking services.

The study, titled “Substance use patterns associated with recent exposure to fentanyl among people who inject drugs in Vancouver, Canada: A cross-sectional urine toxicology screening study”, was published in the February issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.