Vancouver police seizures of fentanyl have spiked as the powerful opioid continues to appear in startling amounts of street-level drugs.
Cops confiscated over 18,000 grams of fentanyl and its variants in 2018 over the course of 1,182 seizures. That’s up from 8,624 g seized over the course of 399 seizures the year before, according to data obtained by Postmedia News via a Freedom of Information request.
Dr. M-J Milloy, a research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, says this reflects the “radical change” in Downtown Vancouver’s illicit drug market since 2014.
A study published by the centre checked 1,006 samples of street-level opioids at safe-injection sites and found 88 per cent of them contained fentanyl. Almost two-fifths of all checked substances didn’t contain what the client expected.
“(Users) have told us that heroin, which used to be the dominant illicit opioid in Vancouver, is difficult if not impossible to find now,” said Milloy. ”It has been replaced by fentanyl.”
The B.C. Coroners Service reports that fentanyl was detected in 1,316 overdose fatalities last year, accounting for 87 per cent of all total overdose deaths. None of those deaths happened at safe-injection sites.
Police data supports the study’s finding that street-level drugs are often not what they seem. For example, in 2018 police seized 1,515 g of caffeine, which Milloy says is sometimes used to cut harder drugs, especially stimulants. Other substitutes police picked up included Vitamins C and D.
Despite its legalization, cannabis is still the most commonly seized substance. Police confiscated over 23,000 g in 2018 and had already seized 6,000 g by mid-May of this year.
The Vancouver police’s drug policy states that they have historically “adopted a very low level of enforcement directed at ‘narcotic in possession.’ ” Dr. Bernie Pauly, a professor at the University of Victoria School of Nursing, says she’d like to see it adopted as an official policy to discourage stigma around substance use and reduce overdose deaths.
“That is actually a policy that would be very aligned with decriminalization,” she said. “ … As a nurse, I want to see people accessing health care.”
Milloy notes police may still seize cannabis they find in the course of other police work or when shutting down illicit pot grow operations.
Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, says marginalized communities like lower-income people and people of colour have less access to legal cannabis and are more likely to be searched by police.
“While privileged kids are as likely to possess and use cannabis, they’re less likely to be caught doing it,” he said. “There are more laws around the cannabis plant now then there were before (legalization).”
Nearly 13,000 g of drugs seized in 2018 were logged as “unknown.”
Vancouver police Sgt. Jason Robillard says this is because the officer may not recognize the substance after seizing it.
“In some cases we just don’t know what the drug is other than what form it is (in),” he wrote in an email.
Milloy argues that the data signals the need for access to a safe drug supply.
“Drug prohibition has created these unregulated markets,” he said. “The hallmark of an unregulated market is you don’t know what’s in the drugs, where they’re coming form or who is using them.”
The Vancouver Police Department didn’t respond to a request for an interview by deadline.