A recent toxic drug alert from the Interior Health region has health care providers in Sun Peaks raising community awareness about harm reduction tools.
On April 12, Interior Health issued an alert warning residents that substances sold as cocaine in the region may contain fentanyl. These substances have been linked to recent overdoses and deaths, the alert said.
In response, Sun Peaks health care providers are encouraging residents to use fentanyl test strips and other harm reduction tools, including new resources at the health centre, to stay safe.
Drug alert is cause for open conversations
Local health care providers told SPIN that part of expanding harm reduction in Sun Peaks includes increasing conversations about substance use in the community to reduce stigma and ensure services are helpful.
Sun Peaks Pharmacy owner and pharmacist Clancy O’Malley and mental health provider Karen Lara say there’s no denying drugs like cocaine are used in ski resort communities like Sun Peaks but drug use is not talked about because of stigma.
“We live in a ski resort. There is a mass of culture around having a good time, which can often include alcohol and substance use,” Lara said. “It’s not about people not having a good time … our absolute number one concern from a medical perspective is keeping people safe and alive.”
A Swedish study echoes Lara’s statements about the culture of substance use in ski resorts.
The 2017 report found that employees at ski resorts have a higher risk of alcohol consumption than the general population. The study also found more dangerous drug use among younger men. Living with co-workers and having a social group that uses substances frequently were among the other factors researchers identified that contribute to substance use.
Lara highlighted that community members can inform healthcare practitioners what gaps they see in the community regarding services for substance use.
“It’s really important to us at this point that we’re hearing directly from the community about what they feel is missing, where the gaps are and how we can be doing our job better,” Lara said.
She says providing support around substance use became a priority for SPCHC after the COVID-19 pandemic increased mental health stressors, which can often increase a person’s risk of substance use.
Research from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the Mental Health Commission of Canada conducted from 2020 to 2022 found that people with mental illnesses and substance use “were disproportionately impacted by stresses” during the pandemic.
Youth, people who are unemployed and have low incomes, racialized groups and LGBTQ2S+ groups were also impacted.
Dr. Shane Barclay from the health centre says many locals have misconceptions around drug use.
“I’ve run into people in disbelief that it’s happening,” Barclay told SPIN. “Drug use is in every community in North America … the best we can do [at the municipal level] is harm reduction.”
Harm reduction services save lives
Sun Peaks’ pharmacist O’Malley says one of the easiest ways for residents to lower their risk of drug poisoning is by using the fentanyl test strips available at the pharmacy.
A 2022 study by the BC Centre for Disease Control found take-home fentanyl testing was as effective as having drugs checked by staff at harm reduction sites.
Anyone can come to the Sun Peaks Pharmacy and receive test strips, naloxone and training on their use. They can also contact O’Malley and access these harm-reduction tools if they don’t want to go to the pharmacy in person.
Using fentanyl test strips is similar to using rapid antigen COVID-19 tests, O’Malley explained.
“You make a solution with a little bit of a sample and then drop it on a test slide, then it gives you a positive or negative result,” he said.
While test strips can detect the presence of fentanyl, there isn’t a guarantee the sample tested is evenly dispersed and the rest of the drug being tested could have a higher concentration of fentanyl.
Additionally, while fentanyl test strips can detect trace amounts of fentanyl and other opioids like carfentanil, they do not guarantee that the drug being tested is safe.
O’Malley says while the unregulated street opioid supply is highly contaminated, it’s less common to find cocaine containing fentanyl.
The pharmacist explained people who use cocaine often do not have a tolerance for opioids. As a result, a small amount of an opioid like fentanyl is more likely to be toxic and lead to death when someone hasn’t used that drug before.
On top of testing their drugs, O’Malley suggests people use substances with other people and download the Lifeguard App, which calls 911 if someone is unresponsive or does not deactivate a timer while using drugs.
O’Malley also says to always carry naloxone to reverse opioid drug poisoning. Naloxone temporarily reverses opioid poisoning, ensuring emergency service providers have time to respond. He notes naloxone needs to be administered by someone else, which makes using drugs alone more of a risk.
The pharmacist emphasized that patients have a legal right to protection of privacy when talking about drugs with health care practitioners.
In addition to drug testing, Dr. Shane Barclay and SPCHC counsellor Karen Lara are implementing other harm reduction strategies in Sun Peaks, like providing naloxone training to food and beverage employees.
The service would be open to other companies and bimonthly naloxone training sessions will start at the health centre in the coming months.
The health centre is layering these services on after providing naloxone training in March.
Drug use resources available in Sun Peaks
For those over 18, possession of small amounts of illicit substances for personal use was decriminalized in 2023. The exemption was granted to the province by Health Canada, started on Jan. 31 and is in effect until the end of 2026.
B.C. decriminalized possession in response to the toxic drug crisis — according to the BC Coroners Service there were 2,272 suspected deaths from toxic illicit drugs in 2022.
For access to fentanyl test strips, naloxone training and more information, residents can visit the Sun Peaks Pharmacy or call O’Malley at 779-996-4245.
O’Malley told SPIN one of the biggest benefits of drug testing is that it gives health professionals and other drug users a more accurate picture of the unregulated drug supply.
“The more drug testing, the more accurate representation of the drug supply,” O’Malley explained. “If we were to get even one positive sample for fentanyl, it could be life saving to any drug users in the community.”
Editors Note, April 27, 2023: This article has been corrected because of a spelling error as well as an error regarding naloxone training. Dr. Shane Barclay’s name has been changed to the correct spelling. Naloxone training is bimonthly, not biweekly.
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