Canada’s Newest Drug Scare

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There is a new type of overdose among drug users in Vancouver and it’s challenging front – line overdose prevention workers trying to save lives. According to Dr. Keith Ahamad, an addiction expert, toxicology reports reveal another drug mixed with fentanyl and other street drugs already adulterated with increasingly bizarre and dangerous fillers.
According to health officials, the unusual chemical — similar to drugs prescribed for anxiety in Canada — appears in urine tests. Several months earlier, Ahamad asserts, he began receiving panicked messages about abusers from confused peers who did not revive when overdose antidotes were given.
The addiction program’s head of Vancouver Coastal Health says he’s seen the phenomenon in St. Paul’s Hospital’s emergency room, and front – line overdose prevention workers notice the same problem at prevention sites. Health workers use naloxone when they try to revive someone who is overdosing, a drug that counteracts opioids. Usually, naloxone or Narcan has a very dramatic effect, however, but Ahamad says users stay sleepy or unconscious for hours in these cases.
The Overdose Prevention Society’s Sarah Blyth says it’s jarring to see. “They’d just pop up with Narcan. But the way the benzos work, they just stay sedated, almost unconscious — just more traumatic for us all, I’ll tell you that,” she said.
Ahamad says the drug that causes this is similar to drugs that are used for anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression, and appears for urine in drug screens. It is used as a filler or additive, which increases the risk of an overdose. Toxicology tests revealed that a benzodiazepine-like analog etizolam, often referred to as a benzo, is the new additive.
Etizolam is described as the 10-fold power of Valium. It’s not approved for sale in North America. Also, benzodiazepines create a high, but when combined with other drugs can be dangerous. Benzos work in the brains of users on a different pathway, so the naloxone has a reduced effect and the breathing of the person is even more depressed than it would be with an opioid alone, Ahamad said.
“So there’s total panic about the potential for increased death and harm associated with that additive,” he said, “people don’t really wake up after using the Narcan for overdose.”
This new additive also threatens to make users tolerant of benzo — and chemically dependent on them. This aggravates their overall health and creates challenges as they would now go through withdrawal for a variety of substances and face even greater challenges attempting to detoxify.
If this isn’t enough, the opioid crisis is in full swing. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said this month that between January 2016 and September 2018, more than 10,300 Canadians lost their lives due to opioid overdoses.

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