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'It's not just fentanyl anymore': B.C. sets new record high for overdose calls as concerns grow over 'tranq' drug

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On March 22, first responders received an alarming number of overdose calls from the Downtown Eastside.

"We saw 45 overdoses in one day," said Keith Stewart, assistant chief with the Vancouver Fire Rescue Service.

"It's an overwhelming number for us."

Stewart says the number was more than double what crews usually see in a typical day.

In an email to CTV News, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) says March 22 set a new record for overdose calls province-wide. In the email, BCEHS added that March 22 was also "income-assistance payment day."

Officials attribute the increased call volume to an increasingly toxic and dangerous illicit drug supply.

"The drugs are being cut with so many different things at this time," said Stewart. "We're seeing some negative effects."

Kali Sedgemore is an outreach worker in the DTES who's responded to several overdoses through the years.

"We're seeing a lot more like xylazine and 'benzos' (benzodiazepines) coming into play," said Sedgemore.

Other areas of the country have also seen a spike in xylazine, known for being a tranquilizer used by veterinarians for anesthesia. 

In an email sent to CTV News, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said it's aware xylazine is showing up as a "cutting agent" in the illicit drug supply.

"It can complicate the response to an opioid poisoning," said the ministry. "It's vitally important to know how to access an overdose prevention or safe consumption site, and carry naloxone, which can save a life."

"It's not just fentanyl anymore," said Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm.

"There's dangerous drugs added into it that don't respond to naloxone, don't respond to the usual ways of saving people's lives. So it's worse than ever."

McBain believes better access to safe drug supply for users could save lives.

"What would happen if it was accessible, low-barrier and people could trust where (they could) get a regulated supply, then what would happen over time is the marketplace of organized crime and the production of these illicit toxic supplies would go down," said McBain.

Sedgemore, however, believes the safe supply policy needs an overhaul.

"The safe supply is not adequate at all," said Sedgemore. "It's like, people need to top up a lot of times because it's the only option they have."

They say users don't get the high they require through safe supply and often purchase drugs off the black market knowing of the potential consequences, including death.

"(Safe supply providers) put (users) on really low doses, which doesn't help people," said Sedgemore.

So far this year, there have been more than 8,500 calls regarding overdose poisoning province-wide.

An average of six people die per day in B.C. from illicit drug use.  

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