KFL&A Public Health warns of toxic unregulated drug supply

Last Updated on March 10, 2023 by YGK News Staff

Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFLA) Public Health sent out a public service announcement on Thursday morning warning the community of particularly dangerous drug toxicity.

The local public health unit said there has been increased detection of xylazine and benzodiazepines in the city’s unregulated drug market.

Benzodiazepines are a class of medication sometimes prescribed but also found readily in the black market, they include relatively common prescription medications like xanax and valium.

Xylazine on the other hand is a veterinary drug which was first officially identified in the Canadian unregulated drug market around 2012.

Both the substances are potent sedatives, and can show similar symptoms as opioids including drowsiness, slow breathing and disorientation.

Rhonda Lovell, a public health nurse in Kingston, says the substances in question being found alongside opioids like fentanyl is cause for particular concern and caution.

“They’re showing up in the unregulated drug supply along with opioids,” Lovell said.

“That’s a pretty significant challenge because both opioids and benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants so they can slow things down pretty heavily in the system.”

The presence of benzos or xylazine with opioids can increase the risk of overdose and death.

Lovell says xylazine in particular is also being found in other street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

She says it is extremely dangerous out there for people who use street drugs, and they should most importantly take caution and never use alone.

“All of this just really speaks to how heavily contaminated, how widely contaminated the unregulated drug supply is right now,” Lovell said.

“And how important it is for anybody using any drug from the unregulated market to take great care to go slow every single time that they’re using any drug… and the greatest risk right now for deaths from opioids is when people are using alone.”

Around 3 of every 4 opioid overdose deaths happen when there is no one else around.

Lovell adds that even if you are unsure if someone is overdosing on opioids or the other contaminants, naloxone should still be used as it won’t compound any problems being caused by the other substances.

While the release was only sent out on Thursday, Executive Director of Trellis Gilles Charette says first responders like those at the Consumption Treatment Services (CTS) have been seeing the effects of these drugs together since before the holidays.

Charette says even beyond the clear health risks the contamination causes to people, the enhanced sedation effects can cause problems for a number of users.

Many clients who access CTS are unhoused, and can become particularly vulnerable in a state of sedation.

“The vulnerability that that puts them in essentially being sedated or unconscious in places where they are very vulnerable to theft or assault,” Charette said.

“There’s also the health effects… if someone were to consume alone without this service there aren’t any successful interventions beyond calling first responders if someone is fortunate enough to be discovered in that situation. The consequences can be dire.”

For Charette, this is just another example of why decriminalization and safe supply are needed immediately.

Kingston, in large part thanks to the Integrated Care Hub, has not suffered nearly as many overdose deaths compared to other places in the country.

But he says we know what the problem is, and it’s beyond time to act.

“We know that what’s out there is toxic and it’s killing people,” Charette said.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate in Kingston to have not seen a dramatic increase in drug poisoning deaths through COVID, but other jurisdictions have seen doubling of the drug poisoning deaths.”

Without safe supply, the only real line of defence against overdoses are safe injection sites, with 19 across Ontario being “woefully insufficient” according to Charette.

KFLA Public Health has already called for decriminalization and safe supply, along with police chiefs of Canada calling for decriminalization.

Lovell says it’s great to see a lot of momentum towards looking at alternative approaches to drug policy.

She says given where the issue is at, it’s obviously time to act.

“The situation warrants some very serious steps,” Lovell said.

“The longer that we keep talking about things… we know that nearly eight people everyday die in Ontario from opioid related causes so I think it would be irresponsible for us to say the time is not here for action.”

Those who use can get a free naloxone kit and training from Kingston Public Health and some local pharmacies.