New deadly drug renews calls for safe supply

New Brunswick’s top doctor has warned of a new, dangerous opioid detected on the province’s streets, prompting frontline workers to renew their calls for a safe drug supply.

On Friday, Yves Léger, acting chief medical officer of health, said a dangerous drug known as bromazolam has been detected in blood samples from nine sudden death investigations.

The press release from the province says it’s the first indication that the drug is being used in New Brunswick. The province said the deaths took place from July to November, and as testing can take months to complete, there may still be a risk to drug users.

“The emergence of bromazolam in the street drug supply in New Brunswick is a major concern,” Léger said in a statement. “What is especially concerning is that people do not know it is contained in their street drugs. There are no warning signs of bromazolam’s presence, as it cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste. There are no telltale signs.”

The province added fentanyl, another strong opioid, was also detected in some of these sudden deaths.

Bromazolam is not approved for medical use in any country, the province said, “and can lead to serious adverse effects, including death, especially when taken with opioids such as fentanyl.”

Julie Dingwell, executive director of Avenue B in Saint John, said the emergence of this particular street drug was new to her.

“It’s always something,” she said, “it’s more to watch out for.”

Dingwell said, currently, people are using fentanyl along with benzodiazepines, which are both respiratory suppressants.

Narcan, a commonly-used antidote to drug poisoning, can reverse the effects of fentanyl, but not benzodiazepines, she said, so “it’s a bit of a mess.”

Dingwell said she knows of five people who have died of overdoses in the past two weeks alone.

“Overdoses continue to be a serious problem,” she said, noting the city’s burgeoning homelessness crisis is a compounding factor.

“People are homeless, and homeless people are using alone, outside,” she said. “It’s not a good situation at all.”

Dingwell said frontline workers dread coming to work on Monday to find out who has died over the weekend.

Debby Warren, executive director of Ensemble Services in Moncton, said this summer fentanyl replaced “Shady 8” as the common street drug.

She said more than 40 instances of overdoses have been reversed at her organization’s safe injection site since March.

Warren says in recent weeks, people have not only been overdosing, but having seizures at the same time, requiring emergency medical attention her staff can’t provide.

Warren said her staff suspected a “bad source” of fentanyl as the cause of the sudden influx in intense seizures and overdoses, which happened “four or five times” within the span of days.

At a press conference Tuesday, Gary Forward, chief of the Woodstock Police Force, said police across the province had seized 11 pounds of fentanyl since April. He added Saint John Police were investigating potential fentanyl-related deaths.

The province urged people using street drugs to “take advantage of an overdose prevention site if one is available in your community.” Ensemble is the only overdose prevention site in New Brunswick.

Dingwell says the solution lies in a safe drug supply, meaning people know they’re accessing pharmaceutical-grade drugs.

“We think of addiction as an illness,” she said. “It’s an illness. [Safe supply] would eliminate people dying.”

Warren says it’s not about giving out free drugs, comparing safe supply to our culture’s approach to alcohol.

During prohibition, she said, people died from drinking moonshine or homemade alcohol, but now, alcohol is regulated by the government.

“That’s what we’re after,” she said, “safe supply is about pharmaceutical grade, and having controls in place like with alcohol.”

She likened safe prevention sites, or overdose prevention sites, to licensed bars and restaurants, where consumption is monitored and over-served patrons are cut off and assisted home.

“That’s all we ask for,” she said. “Because people go out on the street, and they’re dying.”

Marlo Glass, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal