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Etizolam creates 'life-saving challenges' for first responders in B.C.'s overdose crisis

Etizolam, which is not licensed in Canada, has a highly sedating effect on a person, with drowsiness, blackouts and memory loss that can persist for hours.
ODdeaths2020
B.C. is on pace to surpass last year’s overdose death toll of 2,265 people, with Vancouver continuing to be the leading city in the province for deaths. File photo Dan Toulgoet

A drug found in 40 per cent of tests conducted on people who died from an overdose in B.C. over the past two years does not respond to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and is creating “life-saving challenges” for first responders.

The BC Coroners Service released a report Thursday (July 14) on the number of overdose deaths that occurred in the province in May — 195 — and identified etizolam as a drug that is increasingly showing up in toxicological testing.

Between July 2020 and May 2022, etizolam was found in 40 per cent of suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths that have undergone expedited testing by the Coroners Service. The rate of detection in July 2020 was 15 per cent.

“Etizolam is a benzodiazepine analogue and non-opioid sedative that does not respond to naloxone and creates life-saving challenges for first responders,” the Coroners Service report said.

Five to 10 times more potent than diazepam

Etizolam, which is not licensed in Canada, has a highly sedating effect on a person, with drowsiness, blackouts and memory loss that can persist for hours. It is considered to be five to 10 times more potent than diazepam.

Though etizolam has been linked to overdose deaths, the Coroners Service report continues to show that fentanyl and its analogues — at 91 per cent — is the predominant drug detected in tests.

At least one stimulant was detected in 73 per cent of the samples and 44 per cent found at least one benzodiazepine. Nineteen per cent detected at least one other opioid, according to the report, which revealed B.C. is on pace to surpass last year’s death toll of 2,265.

At least 940 lives were lost to toxic drugs in B.C. between January and May, a record number for the first five months of a calendar year. Of those deaths, 229 were recorded in Vancouver, which finished 2021 with 533 people dead from overdose.

6.3 overdose deaths per day

Following two months of a small decline, the 195 recorded deaths in May is the largest number ever recorded in that calendar month and is a 20 per cent increase over the number of deaths reported in April 2022 (162).

The total number of deaths in the month equates to an average of about 6.3 deaths per day.

"After a catastrophic 2021, I am saddened to report that we are, once again, on pace to lose a record number of our community members in 2022," said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner for the BC Coroners Service said in a news release.

"The illicit drug supply in this province continues to be volatile and inconsistent, and presents a significant risk to anyone who uses drugs.”

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

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