Meet Vancouver’s 'Fentanyl Lifeguards'

By Zachary Siegel 06/27/16

As the fentanyl crisis increases in Vancouver, drug users have stepped into the roles of first responders to look out for their fellow users.

Meet Vancouver’s 'Fentanyl Lifeguards'

Whenever you hear that drug users are selfish and self-seeking, a supposed hallmark trait of people in the throes of addiction, think instead about a group of injection drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, who are saving the lives of their friends—in alleys, behind dumpsters—with naloxone. 

An in-depth story about a community of injection drug users in Vancouver called the Downtown Eastside dwellers “fentanyl lifeguards.” A recent report from British Columbia Coroner Service found disturbing increases in fentanyl-related overdoses. In 2012, fentanyl was involved in only 5% of drug-related deaths in British Columbia, compared to nearly 56% of the deaths reported for the first four months of 2016. Fentanyl has nearly supplanted the whole heroin market. 

As a result, there are now over 100 sites distributing naloxone to drug users in the area. The BC Centre for Disease Control has now distributed 9,700 free naloxone kits, more than 1,400 of which have been used to help people overdosing, according to CBC. 

To fight against the dangerous market created by clandestinely manufactured fentanyl, drug users are looking out for each other. For some of these “lifeguards,” reviving their friends gives them a sense of purpose. "There's nothing better than seeing your buddy wake up, and his eyes open, and he's thankful that you did something for him," one drug user in Vancouver told CBC. 

"If someone goes down, hopefully I'm there and I can help. That's the best I can do with anything to do with the fentanyl problem that's going around,” he continued. He also told CBC he stopped taking fentanyl because “it’s way too deadly.” 

But one major problem in the area is many drug users unknowingly purchase and then inject fentanyl when they’re under the assumption that what they bought was heroin. "I test it very, very carefully before I take it, because I don't know who's going to save my ass, right?" said another drug user. "We treat all dope like it's going to be fentanyl, test it out, smoke it first, whatever, because there is so much of it around," said a different user. 

One woman said, "I overdosed from fentanyl and it took two shots of Narcan to bring me back." She thought she injected heroin. Luckily the overdose took place inside Insite, a supervised injection facility (SIF) where the staff was able to revive her. Because fentanyl is so potent, extra doses of naloxone are usually necessary to revive the victim. 

While some drug users actively avoid fentanyl because it's proved so deadly, others seek it out and call it their new drug of choice. One couple that prefers fentanyl over heroin openly discussed their close calls and near deaths. 

Resigned, the woman said, "It's real, it's there, you're not going to get rid of it." 

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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.