Fentanyl Replaces Heroin in Vancouver, Users in Danger

By Zachary Siegel 05/24/16

Fentanyl continues to ravage Vancouver's Downtown Eastside with users reporting that it has replaced heroin on the streets.

Fentanyl Replaces Heroin in Vancouver, Users in Danger
Photo viaDEA.gov

Vancouver has seen a steep rise in the presence of fentanyl, and given the drug’s potency, an uptick of overdoses has followed. 

"Traditionally, heroin comes in about four different colors," Hugh Lampkin, a long-time drug awareness advocate, told the Canadian Press during an interview. "Well, now you're seeing multiple colors, like colors of the rainbow: green and pink and orange and white ... Right away, when you see these colors that's a pretty good indicator that it's fentanyl that you're doing."

But some of the fentanyl consumed in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is being disguised as heroin, according to Delta Police. Using vinegar and brown food coloring to mimic the heroin smell and look, manufacturers are stamping their bags with familiar logos, leaving users to think it’s the same old batch. Only, the dose is much different, requiring much less of the fentanyl—a dose that a user thinks is safe may actually be lethal. 

People who use in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say there is hardly any heroin left, that it’s being replaced by fentanyl, according to Martin Steward of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. 

"I know people who use heroin and they'll inject what they normally do. And the next time they'll do exactly the same thing of what they think is heroin and they're out. Like, they're going under from it," Steward told the Canadian Press. "They're using the same thing, the same product, but getting a different result. That's a forerunner for me to see that it's not heroin."

There were 470 fentanyl-related deaths in British Columbia during 2015, and so far this year, there have been about 200. At this rate, 2016 is set to outpace previous years.  

The mystery of why fentanyl and why now is difficult to pin down, but many suspect it to be a fatalistic outcome of prohibitive drug policies. For instance, alcohol prohibition in the United States led to cheaper, stronger, and more toxic brews of ethanol. Experts argue the same phenomenon is occurring with present day opiates. 

Like a game of whack-a-mole, prescription painkillers were replaced by heroin, and heroin is now being replaced by fentanyl manufactured in clandestine laboratories. Each replacement is more dangerous than the one before.    

The economy of fentanyl is such that it is easy to manufacture and smuggle. Whereas heroin requires vast swaths of poppy fields, fentanyl can be made by obtaining a few chemical precursors. As for smuggling, fentanyl is so highly concentrated that a small package of it can be bagged into the same amount as a huge brick of heroin. Economically and logistically, it is the logical next step in the illicit opiate trade. 

For users on the street, there are certain safety precautions harm reductionists emphasize. First, it is never okay to use alone, and second, whoever you are using with should have naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose. Anecdotally, first responders say larger doses of naloxone are needed in order to revive a person from a fentanyl overdose. 

Though there have been recent busts where fentanyl was seized, drug policy reformists in Vancouver and abroad are calling to rethink prohibitive laws that continue to produce negligible outcomes.   

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.