Illicit drug supply potentially more risky amid pandemic
Harm-reduction advocates worry Calgary’s supply of illicit drugs may be more dangerous due to the COVID -19 pandemic, while users could face further challenges in obtaining certain substances.
Early indications show travel restrictions, border closures and measures to curb the spread of the deadly virus are affecting supply.
Kevin Blanchette is executive director of Alberta Addicts Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly, a group of people with a history of drug use who support members of the drug-using community through peer outreach and education.
“What we are hearing, seeing and sort of experiencing is that certainly drugs are harder to obtain,” said Blanchette. “Prices are elevated as a result of that, which is natural demand and supply, and they’re also using more cutting agents because of the lack of supply.”
Drug cutting involves substances, such as phenacetin, baking soda and caffeine, which are used to either enhance the effects of a drug or increase the volume of a product.
With usual supply routes likely disrupted, it means different supplies are in stock. There are hundreds of different cutting agents and users rarely, if ever, know exactly what they’re getting.
Ultimately, weaker products mean users might take more, increasing the risk of overdose and death — especially considering increased isolation amid the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s a bit of a perfect storm in terms of these vulnerable folks at risk who are already dealing with a toxic drug supply, issues around mental and physical health, and now homelessness and the challenges with being housed is significantly more for them,” said Blanchette.
With far fewer people in public, purchasing drugs is also more evident and harder to do, he said.
Based on drug-related arrests and seizures, Staff Sgt. Kyle Grant with the Calgary police strategic enforcement unit said the COVID-19 pandemic has had a minor effect so far.
“There has been a bit of price fluctuation in terms of methamphetamine. That may be due to the (pandemic) in getting high-quality product from certain suppliers, but at the same time it depends on who you are dealing with,” said Grant, adding prices can be found at their regular allowance, too.
He said there’s also talk that more carfentanil — a synthetic opioid that is approximately 100 times more toxic than fentanyl — is in circulation due to diminished supply of other products. Illicit drugs in Alberta come from a variety of places, including China, Mexico, the U.S. and within Canada.
But, at this point, he said it’s speculation. It’s too soon to tell what toll the pandemic will have on drug prices, products used and overdose rates.
“The big thing to get across is you just can’t know what you’re getting,” said Grant. “Everybody’s bottom line is money in that business, and they will do and say whatever it is to get that money out of your hands.”
Further amplifying the risks to drug users is reduced community supports and services, such as the de-funded injectable opioid agonist treatment program and limited capacity in shelters and sites in response to physical distancing measures.
Dr. Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, said this is potentially the most dangerous time people who use drugs have faced in recent months. She said there needs to be pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to illegal drugs, such as hydromorphone, to prevent the risk of overdose and withdrawal, which could land people in the emergency department while health-care professionals are dealing with COVID-19.
“It’s a very unprecedented situation but we have to keep the work going to support people who are at risk of dying an overdose death,” said Hyshka. “It’s important to not forget the existing health crises while we are dealing with the pandemic.”