Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller sometimes prescribed to treat severe pain in cancer patients, is showing up more and more on the street.
A study conducted by Canadian researchers at the Insite Supervised Injection Centre in Vancouver found that approximately 80% of heroin used at the site between July 2016 and March 2017 had been contaminated with Fentanyl.
Vancouver’s Insite is a center that allows drug users to inject intravenous drugs legally and under supervision from medical personnel with sterile equipment. Opened in 2003, the center is part of a “harm reduction” strategy that aims to reduce overdose deaths and transmission of diseases from dirty equipment. It is the only center of its kind in North Amerca, although Seattle is working to open the first in the US.
The researchers found that 80% of the crystal meth and 40% of the cocaine used at Insite were also contaminated with fentanyl. Researchers tested more than 1,000 drug samples, asking Insite clients if they wanted to test their drugs voluntarily. Approximately five out of the center’s 600 daily visitors tested their substances, according to Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health and the lead researcher on the study.
Though Fentanyl is legal and sometimes prescribed by doctors, it is extremely dangerous. The drug, which is available in a patch or liquid, is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and about 40 to 50 times more potent than pure heroin.
Because of its potency, fentanyl has become more common in street drugs. Many producers and traffickers now mix fentanyl illegally produced in underground labs with heroin or ostensibly prescription pain medications like hydrocodone or oxycodone to make their drugs more potent.
The increase in the prevalence of fentanyl led to a flood of overdoses last summer in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Last August, Cincinnati police reported more than 60 overdose cases in two days. Around the same time, Huntington, West Virginia reported 26 overdose cases over the course of four hours. Similar outbreaks occurred throughout the summer, which many law enforcement officials blamed on fentanyl.
“It’s a very scary thing,” Van Ingram, executive director of Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy, told the Lexington Herald Leader last year. “What we see across the country is the drug cartels moving away from heroin and moving toward these opioids they’re going to produce themselves. People think they’re buying one thing and they’re actually buying another. The stuff they’re selling is so powerful. Some of the stuff we’re seeing produced is 50 times more potent than heroin, as if heroin wasn’t bad enough.”
In the Insite study, approximately 80% of the drugs checked was heroin, while crystal meth represented 7.2% and cocaine represented 5.3%.
Lysyshyn told the Vancouver Sun that the results of the study should not be interpreted to mean that 80% of street heroin in Vancouver is contaminated with fentanyl. While the percentage could be that high, he said, it is most likely lower because people are more likely to test drugs that they already suspect to be contaminated.
Still, the study is more troubling evidence that fentanyl is becoming more and more common on the street.
“This study proves that the alarm bells that have been sounding over this public health emergency are fully warranted,” Rick Lines, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International, said in a statement.
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