Nearly all drugs sold as heroin in Vancouver contain fentanyl, study finds

published on August 1, 2018 by Andrea Woo in The Globe and Mail

More than 80 per cent of drugs sold as heroin on the streets of Vancouver don’t contain any heroin at all, while nearly all of them contain the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to the findings of a pilot project led by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU).

The centre gave local users the opportunity to check their drugs not only for the presence of fentanyl, but a wide range of substances. The final results, to be published in the September edition of the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal, show that fentanyl has overwhelmingly supplanted the local supply of illicit opioids, and heroin in particular. Stimulants and hallucinogens, meanwhile, are much more likely to contain the substance they are sold as.

Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) who co-authored the paper with Kenneth Tupper, Karen McCrae, Ian Garber and Evan Wood, said the findings provide insight into just how contaminated the local drug supply is.

“Something like 60 per cent of the drugs that we check are not what people think they are,” Dr. Lysyshyn said on Tuesday. “We’ve always had the idea that drugs could be something different, but right now [the contamination rate] is really high.”

The pilot ran from November, 2017, to April, 2018, at two VCH-operated supervised-consumption sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Drug checks involved both fentanyl test strips and an infrared spectrometer, purchased by the BCCSU and the City of Vancouver. In all, 1,714 samples were tested.

The majority (58.7 per cent) of samples that clients volunteered were expected to be opioids, according to the paper. Of 907 samples expected to be heroin, only 160 (17.6 per cent) contained any heroin at all, while 822 (90.6 per cent) tested positive for fentanyl.

The most common composition for a drug purported to be heroin was caffeine, a sugar alcohol and fentanyl, the paper stated.

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