Fentanyl – its deadly effects don’t discriminate, but they expose social discrimination


I was struck by the news coverage of the deaths from Fentanyl. When people in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) overdose, there is barely any coverage, and we don’t know people’s names. But when a couple in North Vancouver died from a Fentanyl overdose in July, the media said, “They came from a good family.” Don’t people in the DTES also come from good families?

Fentanyl is cheap, a synthetic opioid that is often added to heroin or Oxycontin. It can be deadly. One of the remedies is to use Naxalone, or Narcan, and administer three, four or five doses. It can take that much of it to rouse someone who has OD’d.

Some say that the DTES is better equipped to deal with Fentanyl ODs because there are supplies of Narcan handy. Other people in the Lower Mainland and outside the DTES should have ready access to this life-saving drug.

Stigma has always been a problem for drug users in the DTES. The fight to keep life-saving services such as InSite alive has been a fight to value lives of people in the DTES. But the sympathetic coverage of the couple from North Van shows that anti-DTES stigma is alive and well.

It took VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) to make a thousand crosses in Oppenheimer Park years ago before action was taken against the overdose epidemic. Names of the dead were put on the crosses and each was acknowledged as a person with grieving family members and friends.

People are dying here because the drugs are illegal and unregulated. There have been efforts to get the RCMP and the BC Centre for Disease Control to check drugs weekly and to notify users what was found in the drugs. That way users would know what was in the drugs they are taking. This might have saved my friend who died when hog de-wormer was put in his drugs.

An expert told me that some long-term opiate users like Fentanyl because it is strong enough to get them out of withdrawal and because the quality of opiates on the street is unreliable. The trouble is that people taking Fentanyl can overdose and die in ten seconds, so a quick reaction with Narcan is necessary.

This is part of the reason why harm reduction services are so crucial. A few basic rules of harm reduction are not to use drugs alone, try a bit first to see how it affects you and avoid combining drugs with alcohol or benzodiazepines such as Valium.

These practices are already in place in the DTES, and there is access to Narcan here. But these things aren’t in place for users who come from “good families” outside the area. The community has been in a constant fight against the indifference of officials in order to keep needed services such as InSite open for users inside the DTES. Surprisingly, the life-saving methods developed here are what officials are now recommending for those in communities across the Lower Mainland.

But it took a “nice couple” from North Vancouver to get the issue discussed in a broad way. A news search revealed so much media coverage of their deaths and the issue of Fentanyl and ODs. There was barely any coverage or mention of DTES drug deaths. This couple had a two-year old son. None of the coverage said they were derelict parents. Drug users in the DTES would have had their children taken by the Ministry, if they were even acknowledged to have children.

As Constable Brian Montague says in the Georgia Straight (Aug. 5, 2015), “…a problem once confined to heroin addicts now concerns recreational drug users of every sort…These are teenagers, husbands, wives and family people with jobs.” And that is what made them stand up and take notice.

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