New study sheds light on how toxic and unsafe the drug supply has become in Thunder Bay

·4 min read
Fentanyl, pictured in this CBC file photo, is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine, and is a leading cause in the rising number of opioid overdose deaths across the country. (Canadian Press - image credit)
Fentanyl, pictured in this CBC file photo, is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine, and is a leading cause in the rising number of opioid overdose deaths across the country. (Canadian Press - image credit)

Results from a study conducted at Lakehead University during the pandemic is painting a picture of the increasingly deadly supply of drugs in Thunder Bay.

The study asked 98 people who use drugs in the northwestern Ontario city a number of questions about their drug use between April and June 2021, including what substances they believed they consumed in the previous three days. Then, a urine test was completed, and the results compared to the survey responses.

Among the findings, 69 per cent of respondents in the survey had unexpected or unknown drugs show up in their urinalysis, which demonstrates just how unpredictable the drug supply has become in northwestern Ontario, according to Abigale Sprakes, the researcher who conducted the study and an assistant professor with Lakehead University's school of social work.

"This becomes concerning because it doesn't allow people to actually make decisions for themselves about how they might keep themselves safe with these really high rates of unknown drugs in their system," she said.

Some of the data was published this month by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction as part of a national report on the use of drugs from the unregulated supply.

It comes as the provincial coroner released data showing that a record 2,819 people died across Ontario in 2021 from opioid toxicity, up 80 per cent from 2019, the year before the pandemic began.

In the Thunder Bay District Health Unit's catchment area alone, 152 people died from a drug-related overdose last year, according to preliminary data. That's about two people dying every five days, and puts the health unit among those most affected on a per capita basis by Ontario's worsening drug crisis.

Drug-related overdose deaths in Thunder Bay district

Drugs cut many times before reaching Thunder Bay

The results from the study don't come as any surprise to Kyle Arnold, an outreach worker in the city who told CBC News he's been to more overdose-related funerals in the last few months than ever before.

"The drugs are coming up here from wherever they're coming, and they're cut with something. Then they get cut again, and by the time they make it to northern Ontario, you can imagine how many times they've been cut [with different substances]," Arnold said, adding every time they're cut with something new, it makes more product to sell.

"The [dealers], they're not properly mixing this stuff in the lab or anything. There's no thought for human life. They're just throwing [substances] in, mixing it and trying to make some money."

Now, Arnold says he's heard more people are using benzodiazepines as a cutting agent, because it is cheap to get and makes the substance really potent.

LISTEN | A frontline worker in Thunder Bay, Ont., talks about the toll of the overdose crisis

Benzos often unexpected in drugs

That finding was replicated in the study, as the urine test found many people were unaware that benzodiazepines were in the drugs they were using.

"Benzodiazepines are a sedative, and so when that was paired with an opioid, that actually has higher increases around potential drug poisonings or overdoses," she said.

Some of the other findings from the study include:

  • Two-thirds of survey respondents reported using substances alone, without any supports or mechanisms to increase their own safety.

  • 61 per cent of participants said they were concerned their drugs may contain other substances they weren't aware of.

  • 57 per cent said if they knew there was fentanyl contained in the drugs they were taking, that would make a difference in their use.

  • Four in 10 respondents didn't know which specific opiates were in their system.

  • "Really high numbers" of respondents that experienced their own drug overdose, or witnessed an overdose within the previous six months.

Submitted by Abigale Sprakes
Submitted by Abigale Sprakes

Recently, an alert was put out by the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use about nitazene, a synthetic opioid that is estimated to be several times more potent than fentanyl and can increase the risk of accidental overdoses.

The organization put out the alert in six locations: British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland, Toronto and Thunder Bay.

The Lifeguard app, which provides public information and resources to reduce the risk of overdoses in communities, has also issued ten alerts in the Thunder Bay area since the start of 2022, all about different variations of "down" — a deadly mix of heroin, fentanyl and other substances — that were connected to a high number of overdoses.

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