Pubdate: Wed, 31 Aug 2005
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2005, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Rod Mickleburgh
Bookmark: (Heroin)


VANCOUVER -- Something is killing drug addicts in Vancouver at an alarming 
rate, and it may not be a lethal batch of "bad heroin" as police initially 
suspected, preliminary toxicology tests have shown.

In one of the worst outbreaks of narcotic-related deaths in recent years, 
nine long-time drug users, six men and three women ranging from 28 to 48 
years of age, have died within the past 12 days.

Radio station CKNW reported yesterday that initial tests on five victims 
showed only one appeared to have suffered a heroin overdose. The other four 
bodies contained methadone, crystal meth and cocaine, but no heroin, CKNW said.

Vancouver police immediately disputed the report, stressing that the 
findings were preliminary.

"Nothing is confirmed," police spokesman Constable Howard Chow insisted. 
"All along we've been telling people that we believe this stuff to be 
heroin. At the end of the day, it may not be, but we don't know that yet."

However, Constable Chow confirmed police are investigating a possible link 
between the spate of addict deaths and the theft of a large quantity of 
methadone from a local pharmacy this month.

Unscrupulous dealers may have laced their drugs with methadone, rather than 
heroin, he suggested.

"If they used methadone in the same quantities, believing it to be heroin, 
that would be enough to OD [overdose]. It's so fast-acting."

Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said the grim 
toll underscores the need for a way to test the safety of illicit drugs 
hawked openly throughout the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside.

"We've been struggling to get that for many, many years, but we are always 
blocked by police," Ms. Livingston. "It seems there is far more money spent 
on research of drug addicts than on preventing the deaths of those same 
people that are being studied and studied and studied."

She said it should not be that difficult to establish an amber alert system 
for quick analysis of street drugs whenever problem narcotics show up. 
"It's a safety issue."

Ms. Livingstone agreed that methadone may well have been more to blame for 
the recent fatalities than bad heroin, noting that the drug -- a 
prescription narcotic often given to heroin addicts trying to kick their 
habit -- is as much as 10 times more concentrated.

"Dealers like to claim they have the strongest heroin, so they try to fool 
their clients. Methadone can knock them right on their ass, and it doesn't 
have the same kind of high.

"So you use more and more, and then you go over the edge," she said.

Ms. Livingstone was critical of earlier warnings by police that some form 
of potent heroin was being sold on the streets. "When you do that, it has 
the odd effect of attracting users who want some. It's irresponsible."

But Constable Chow said police had a public safety obligation to get the 
message out that lethal doses of heroin could be circulating.

"We couldn't just sit by. We had to get that warning out. It's the 
responsible thing to do."

The number of fatal drug incidents has declined in recent years, dropping 
to 50 in 2003 from 191 in 1999. There were 64 recorded drug-overdose deaths 
last year.

However, Ms. Livingstone said Vancouver is still the champion in Canada for 
drug-use deaths. "The numbers are still not low enough to be considered not 
a problem."

She said most of those who have died this month were known as long-time, 
experienced drug users.

"Other than that, we don't know a lot about them. We wish police would 
release their names so we could do a proper obituary for them.

"So far, we only have two names. Jane and Rowdy. We will have a moment of 
silence for them at the end of our next meeting."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Elizabeth Wehrman