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Most heroin tested in Canada is contaminated with fentanyl

Tests on drugs seized by law enforcement show a 20-fold increase in heroin testing positive for fentanyl since 2012.

The amount of street heroin testing positive for the deadly opiate fentanyl has skyrocketed over the past five years, according to tests of thousands of samples conducted by Canada’s health regulator.

In 2017, 4,568 samples of street drugs seized by law enforcement tested positive for fentanyl, mostly in British Columbia, followed by Ontario, according to Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service data provided to VICE News. In 2012, just 217 samples tested positive across the country, meaning the amount of drugs cut with fentanyl has increased more than 20-fold.

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Heroin has seen the biggest jump, with 60 percent of samples in 2017 testing positive for fentanyl or similar chemicals, compared to less than one percent five years ago. Fentanyl was also found in 1.8 percent of cocaine samples and 1.7 percent of meth samples tested this year.

With the number of fentanyl-linked overdose deaths increasing dramatically in recent years, experts aren’t surprised to see the contamination of other illicit drugs with the powerful opioid, since it makes economic sense for dealers. Fentanyl is far cheaper and more potent than heroin, meaning dealers can deliver the same high for drug users at a fraction of the cost.

“In order to traffic in a prohibition environment, [drug dealers] need to evade as many efforts at interdiction as possible,” Hakique Virani, a public health specialist at the University of Alberta, told VICE News. “In prohibition environments, you’re going to find more toxic molecules in the illicit market.”

Virani also points out that in parts of Canada, heroin has been replaced almost entirely by fentanyl.

“I haven’t seen a positive urine test for heroin in ages now. It’s been at least four years,” said the Edmonton-based doctor. “And I also believe there will come a time where we don’t see fentanyl at all, and it’ll only be research chemicals or even smaller and more toxic fentanyl analogues.”

We can throw everything and the kitchen sink at this problem, but until personal use of substances is decriminalized, we’re going to continue to see an illicit market that we can’t get ahead of.

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Last week, a portable drug-testing device was introduced as part of a pilot project in Vancouver’s supervised injection sites. Users will be able to anonymously submit samples of their drugs to test for opioids and other substances. Fentanyl test strips, another technology used to detect the presence of the opiate, are also being expanded to sites in the province, where more than 1,100 people have died of suspected drug overdoses so far this year. Since testing began in July 2016, 80 percent of the 1,400 checks that followed tested positive for fentanyl, according to a statement from Vancouver Coastal Health.

Users who got a positive result were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose.

Even in B.C., where authorities have been trying to provide a variety of harm reduction interventions like better drug testing, Virani says they “just scratching the surface” of the opioid overdose crisis.

Many users don’t want to participate in a supervised consumption service, and some users won’t reduce their consumption, even if their drugs test positive for fentanyl, the doctor continued.

Interventions like prescription heroin and better testing for fentanyl have been shown to reduce overdose deaths, Virani said, although he expects new drugs to enter the market soon which won’t be picked up by the testing machines.

“We can throw everything and the kitchen sink at this problem, but until personal use of substances is decriminalized, we’re going to continue to see an illicit market that we can’t get ahead of,” Virani said.