Last Friday (June 22), one day after the official start of the summer, Canada's federal government sent out a pair of media releases that can sadly be described as a sign of the times.
"Drug Use During Festival Season," reads the subject line of the first.
And the second: "Health Canada reminds Canadians of the limitations of fentanyl test strips being used to check street drugs before consumption."
With summer comes an annual slew of music festivals. People take drugs at those events, often mixing them with alcohol and not enough water. And now, with the dangerous synthetic-opioid fentanyl associated with a growing number of fatal overdoses across Canada, the federal government is asking partygoers to exercise caution.
"While celebrating, it is important to keep safety in mind, especially if you or someone you know chooses to use drugs or alcohol," reads the first of the two releases from Health Canada.
Abandoning the "Just say no" approach that dominated anti-drug messaging through the 1990s and early 2000s, Ottawa has adopted a more realistic position on illicit drug use. It's issued a list of tips for how people taking illegal narcotics such as cocaine or ecstasy can ingest those substances in a way that's as safe as possible.
Among the Canadian government's advice for taking drugs:
- "Understand that any illegal drug can be tainted with other dangerous substances, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which can be deadly.
- "Never use drugs alone and stay with your friends and people you trust.
- "Carry naloxone, which can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose, if you or someone you know uses drugs. If you are with someone who is having an opioid overdose, follow the directions on the naloxone kit and administer it right away.
- "Be aware that people who use drugs and alcohol can be at an increased risk of sexual assault."
Health Canada's second release is in response to the growing availability of fentanyl test strips, which function similar to a take-home pregnancy test to reveal if the dangerous-synthetic opioid is present in a substance.
"In December 2017, Health Canada advised Canadians about the potential limitations of fentanyl test strips when used to check street drugs before consumption," it reads. "A preliminary study by the Department of a fentanyl test strip product indicated that false negatives could occur. A false negative result means that the test strip did not detect a targeted drug even though the drug was present in the sample. A false negative could lead to a false sense of security, which may result in drug use that could lead to overdose or death.
"Health Canada has undertaken additional assessments of the same fentanyl test strip and found that while the product detected fentanyl every time, it was not reliable for detecting some fentanyl analogs," the release continues. "This includes carfentanil, a drug that is far more toxic than fentanyl."
In Vancouver, fentanyl test strips are available at Insite at 139 East Hastings Street and at several other overdose-prevention sites in the Downtown Eastside.
On June 19, Health Canada published new numbers on overdose deaths across the country. It shows that opioids killed nearly 4,000 people in Canada in 2017, according to preliminary data.
"Opioid-related harms are rising despite declines in both the number of prescriptions for opioids and the total amount dispensed from Canadian pharmacies," reads another Health Canada media release. "Illegal fentanyl continues to be a factor in many opioid-related deaths and its increased presence and toxicity in the drug supply is fuelling the opioid crisis."
In B.C., there were 1,449 illicit-drug overdose deaths in 2017, up from 992 in 2016, 523 in 2015, and 368 in 2014. In 2017, fentanyl was associated with approximately 84 percent of fatal overdoses in B.C.