Drug safety advocacy group says contaminated cocaine is Newfoundland’s new reality

Drug safety advocacy group says contaminated cocaine is Newfoundland’s new reality
Drug safety advocacy group says contaminated cocaine is Newfoundland’s new reality

Following a warning from the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre on Substance Abuse that cocaine is contaminated in central and western Newfoundland, a drug safety advocacy group in St. John’s says warnings should be in place at all times.

Emily Wadden, program manager of the Safe Works Access Program in St. John’s, says the drug supply in the province is becoming increasingly toxic.

“This is the reality now 24/7. They may choose to issue a drug alert after they hear of a few deaths — but this has to be the assumption going forward,” Wadden told CBC News on Wednesday.

The warning was issued Monday after the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use received reports that contaminated cocaine had led to increased harm, including overdoses and deaths. The warning said other substances, including opioids such as fentanyl, may be present in the drug.

Wadden was not surprised.

“You can no longer assume that the drugs you bought or the drugs you know you have are not mixed with something. No one can say for sure,” she said.

Number of drug-related deaths is increasing

According to Wadden, SWAP waited for the toxic drugs to reach Newfoundland and Labrador, as is the case elsewhere in Canada.

According to figures from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the number of drug-related deaths in the county in 2023 will nearly double from the previous year.

Last year, there were 73 drug-related deaths in the province, a 97 percent increase from the 37 accidental drug deaths in 2022.

Cocaine was the leading cause of death, with 34 deaths, followed by 13 deaths from benzodiazepines, 11 deaths from alcohol, and 9 from fentanyl.

SWAP has distributed more than 5,000 naloxone kits from April 2023 through March of this year. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

As the number of deaths increases, so does SWAP’s distribution of naloxone kits.

From April 2023 through March of this year, SWAP distributed 5,024 naloxone kits, an increase of 139 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.

“It doesn’t matter if you use it once a day, ten times a day or once a year. This can happen to anyone at any time, because this can be found everywhere in the province,” Wadden said.

‘No FDA standards’

Wadden attributes this to a lack of regulation, as the Canadian Food and Drugs Act applies to legal substances.

“There are no FDA standards for drug trafficking,” Wadden told CBC News.

Dealers often sell more than one drug, and it’s easy for cross-contamination between substances to occur, she said, but it’s unlikely that local dealers are intentionally mixing substances like cocaine and fentanyl. Killing the clientele is bad for business, she said.

“No dealer here is going to waste two types of drugs by mixing them and giving someone something they don’t want. That’s bad business and it just makes the customers go somewhere else.”

Safety Tips

SWAP focuses on harm reduction rather than drug abstinence. With safe drug use a priority for the program, Wadden recommends people reach out to a trusted friend when they are using drugs alone to “spot them from a distance.”

Remote spotting occurs when a person who is using drugs lets someone else know that they are using drugs. If they do not respond to a check-in text within a certain time, they treat the situation as an emergency.

She also recommends people use drug test strips, even though the results aren’t always perfect. She uses a chocolate chip cookie as an example.

“The chips aren’t necessarily evenly distributed throughout the cookie. Some parts of that cookie could be full of chocolate chips, while another quarter has none, so if you test that quarter with no chocolate chips, it’s clearly going to be negative. But you just missed the chocolate chips,” Wadden said.

SWAP also recommends that people carry naloxone kits.

“We would rather have you have a naloxone kit in your school bag, purse or just with you and never have to use it, than be in a situation where no one has it and you could actually use it and then still have to come by and pick it up,” Wadden said.

“Prevention is better than cure.”

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