Levels of illicit drugs entering sewage streams have risen in five major Canadian cities, including Vancouver, since the COVID-19 pandemic’s start, Statistics Canada reports.
The analysis indicates different cities have distinct drug use profiles and Vancouver showed per-capita fentanyl loads more than four times higher than in any other city.
The agency also said results signal an increase in drug consumption, which may be a contributing factor to the increase in overdose-related deaths.
“Of the 14 drugs measured, the levels of cannabis, fentanyl and methamphetamine were found to have significantly increased early in the pandemic” the Canadian Wastewater Survey (CWS) report released July 26 said of samples collected from March to July 2019 and from January to July 2020.
In April 2020, the load of cannabis metabolite in wastewater was 28% higher than in March 2020. On average, wastewater loads of fentanyl in April 2020 were similar to those observed in the months preceding the pandemic, but were almost twice as high in May, and close to three times higher in June and July, Statistics Canada said.
2020 was B.C.’s worst year for illicit drug deaths, with 1,726 deaths. The highest number previously was in 2018, with 1,549 deaths. By April 2018, 535 people died, down from 555 in April of 2017, a year which saw 1,493 fatalities.
2021 is on track to be another year of tragic fatalities.
Statistics Canada said the wastewater information gathered in the CWS will help decision makers with public health strategies and allow public health authorities, law enforcement agencies and other organizations to target their approach in the overdose crisis.
The CWS has been testing wastewater samples from wastewater treatment plants in Halifax, Montréal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver since March 2019.
Analyses produce estimates of the amount of a given drug metabolite, a chemical made when the body breaks down a drug, entering the wastewater system, which is generally expected to reflect the overall quantity of the drug consumed by the population within a given area.
Moreover, the results support earlier findings of pandemic drug use.
Statistics Canada found more than one-third of those who had previously consumed cannabis reported that their consumption increased during the pandemic.
Furthermore, Statistics Canada said, using data from provincial and territorial chief coroners and chief medical examiners, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported that apparent opioid-related deaths—the majority of which involved non-pharmaceutical fentanyl—were at their highest from April to September 2020, following the introduction of COVID-19 prevention measures.