Last summer, a North Vancouver couple in their 30s was found dead in their home, leaving behind their two-year-old son. A coroner's report revealed Hardy and Amelia Leighton had fatally overdosed fentanyl and a combination of other drugs they likely used.
In part, the couple's death caught media attention because they lived in a good part of town and were not believed to be addicts. But according to Mark Lysyshyn Vancouver Coastal Health medical officer, that's not atypical.
"In the Vancouver Coastal Health region, the majority of people dying from using fentanyl are not using injection drugs. They are mostly recreational drug users who are snorting or smoking drugs," he said in a media release.
Statistics from January to April of 2016 reveal that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 100 times stronger than morphine, was found in 56 percent of all BC drug overdoses—up from 31 percent in 2015. The province's 200-plus fentanyl deaths this year has been declared a public health emergency.
But many of the people dying of fentanyl overdoses don't even realize that's what they're taking, according to health authorities and cops who are warning recreational drug users that they're at risk of dying when they take drugs like oxycodone, ecstasy, heroin, MDMA, and cocaine, all of which could be laced with fentanyl. In Vancouver, heroin is believed to have been all but replaced with fentanyl.
Samuel Gutman, a doctor with BC-based Rockdoc Consulting, which is setting up harm reduction stations at Pemberton Music Festival next month, told VICE dealers are cutting fentanyl into other drugs because "it's cheap and available, and it's easy to synthesize."
Making fentanyl, he said, is a four-step process requiring easily available non-prescription ingredients. That makes it an appealing substance to cut into other drugs—even uppers like cocaine and MDMA.
"If you're getting high, you're getting high," he said, even if it may not be the high you expected.
Delta, BC police, who've seen fentanyl overdoses from people who thought they were doing cocaine, issued a warning to residents last year about laced drugs.
There's an additional danger when a person is not a regular opioid user and inadvertently ingests fentanyl.
"A relatively small amount of any opioid can cause overdose and death," said Gutman.
Vancouver police spokesman Randy Fincham said more and more drug users who've died of fatal overdoses have a mixture of drugs in their systems, including fentanyl. But he says it can be tough to track which chemicals mixed together to create the toxic overdose.
In terms of lacing, he said fentanyl is most commonly being marketed as OxyContin in the form of counterfeit pills.
"When kids take these pills they think 'Oh, it's a prescription drug, it's not gonna kill me.' That's incorrect. It's very, very infrequent that we find an Oxy pill on the street that is a prescription pill."
The force is seizing hundreds of thousands of the fake pills, he said, noting there's absolutely no quality control on the pills.
Fincham compared the lack of consistency to making chocolate chip cookies—you can't guarantee that each cookie is going to have a certain number of chips.
"If you are the user who is getting a counterfeit pill that is being mixed in somebody's basement in a warehouse with no controls whatsoever, you could be getting the one that's getting 24 chocolate chips, and therefore it kills you," he said. "You're playing Russian roulette with your life."
Photo via Flickr user Nightlife Of Revelry
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.