Animal tranquilizer making street drugs even more dangerous in Greater Victoria

Animal tranquilizer making street drugs even more dangerous in Greater Victoria
49-year-old Chris Schwede was found dead from a suspected toxic drug poisoning Thursday morning in his tent on Pandora Avenue.

Just hours after health officials issued a warning about a spike in drug poisoning in Greater Victoria, 49-year-old Chris Schwede was found dead from a suspected toxic drug poisoning Thursday morning in his tent on Pandora Avenue.

“I can’t even find the words. My brother just died, and he should not have died,” said Chris’ sister Candice Csaky.

Support workers believe Csaky’s brother Schwede was killed by an increasingly unpredictable toxic drug supply.

“This overdose seems to be coming from this new turquoise rock that hit the streets just this past week that contains all sorts of horrible ingredients that are leading to almost instantaneous death for people,” said Grant McKenzie, communications director of Our Place.

When tested at Substance UVic, Victoria’s drug checking point, a concoction of carfentanyl, benzodiazepines, and xylazine was found.

Whereas carfentanyl and benzodiazepines are more common to be cut into opiates and other illicit drugs, xylazine is a relatively new poison.

“It started to show up just recently in drug checking but I do wonder just based on some of the symptoms we’ve seen around in the community if it’s been around for a while,” said Fed Cameron, program director at SOLID Outreach.

This past year, Substance UVic say they’ve been testing for xylazine, which in June, was found in 44 samples.

Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer typically used by vets and is not approved for humans. In the past week, the drug has been detected in half the tests Substance UVic has done this week.

Chemists who work with Substance UVic’s lab echo Cameron’s concerns, that this drug could have been around longer, even longer than the year they’ve been testing for it.

“One of the challenges is, you have a lot of sensitive tools but you really have to hone them into a particular compound. So if you know what you’re looking for, you can detect something to a very small amount, but if you’re just trying to do a broad search to see what else is there, can be really tricky,” explained Dennis Hore, a UVic chemistry professor who works with the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project.

The problem is that the illicit drug supply is makers’ choice, and is always changing with the supply chain and demand, so it’s difficult for scientists and support staff, to keep up with.

“There’s always a new drug coming it seems. A few years ago we made the transition from working with heroin to fentanyl, and right now it’s more unpredictable than it’s ever been,” said Cameron.

Users say xylazine is being added to fentanyl or heroin to extend the effects of an opiate high, but it can be cut into other illict drugs as well.

“It’s very concentrated in small amounts, so people are putting very small amounts to give drugs legs. In other words to make drugs last longer,” said Dave Keeler, a street ambassador with SOLID Outreach.

The problem is Narcan or naloxone, which is commonly administered to reverse opiate overdoses, doesn’t work with xylazine so it makes resuscitation more difficult.

“The one thing this drug does is it shuts down your respiratory system, so you just stop breathing, and you die,” said McKenzie.

Xylazine compounds the effects of opiates and further slows people’s breathing, heart rate, and lowers blood pressure. But giving Narcan is still critical because xylazine is often mixed with fentanyl, and it’s fentanyl which is continuing to kill people.

“Because the illicit drug supply is so volatile and inconsistent, adulterants like xylazine come and go, but the one drug driving this crisis is fentanyl,” said B.C.’s Coroner Office to CHEK News in a statement.

Regardless of what drug is to blame, users in Greater Victoria say drug poisonings are spiking.

“We’ve seen more deaths this last week. There are already four that I know of this week. I think it’s getting more toxic. It’s super scary,” said Keeler.

As for the family of Schwede who was found dead from the toxic mix of drugs in his system Thursday, they say he desperately wanted help but there wasn’t any.

“I want to know what the government’s going to do about this. People are dying every day. COVID isn’t the pandemic we should be afraid of in this country. This is the pandemic. People dying on the street every single day that shouldn’t be dying,” said Csaky.

She says the number of rehab and recovery beds on the Island isn’t meeting the current needs.

“We need rehab facilities all over the Island, all over B.C,” Csaky said.

“There needs to be a rehab facility that you can walk them into that day that is publicly funded, because putting them on a waitlist for something that’s not even on the Island? Do you think that drug addict is going to be saying the same thing four months from now? They’re not. They need help today, right now. Because that opportunity is likely to not come again, and they’re going to end up dead like my brother is.”

McKenzie says there are just over 20 recovery beds on Vancouver Island but due to staffing shortages only 10 are available, with a waiting list of over 200 people.

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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