New study sheds light on how toxic and dangerous drug supply has become in Thunder Bay


Findings from a study conducted at Lakehead University during the pandemic paint a picture of the increasingly deadly drug supply in Thunder Bay.

The study asked 98 people who use drugs in the northwestern Ontario city a number of questions about their drug use between April and June 2021, including substances they thought they had used over the previous three days. Next, a urine test was performed and the results were compared to the survey responses.

Among the findings, 69 per cent of survey respondents had unexpected or unfamiliar medications in their urinalysis, demonstrating just how unpredictable the drug supply has become in northwestern Ontario, according to Abigale. Sprakes, the researcher who conducted the study and an assistant professor at Lakehead University’s School of Social Work.

“It becomes concerning because it doesn’t allow people to make decisions for themselves about how they might protect themselves with these very high levels of unknown drugs in their system,” she said.

Some of the data was released this month by the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction as part of a national report on the use of drugs from the unregulated supply.

It comes as the provincial coroner released data showing a record 2,819 people died in Ontario in 2021 from opioid toxicity, up 80 per cent from 2019, the year before the onset of the pandemic.

In the area served by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit alone, 152 people died of drug-related overdoses last year, according to preliminary data. That’s about two people dying every five days and puts the health unit among the hardest hit per capita by Ontario’s worsening drug crisis.

Drugs cut multiple times before reaching Thunder Bay

The study results come as no surprise to Kyle Arnold, an outreach worker in the city who told CBC News he has attended more overdose-related funerals in the past few months than ever before.

“Drugs come here from wherever they come from, and they’re cut with something. Then they are cut again, and by the time they arrive in Northern Ontario you can imagine how many times they have been cut. [with different substances]”said Arnold, adding that every time they cut with something new, it makes for more product to sell.

“The [dealers], they don’t mix that stuff properly in the lab or whatever. There is no thought for human life. they just throw [substances] in it, shuffling and trying to make money.”

Now Arnold says he’s heard more and more people are using benzodiazepines as a cutting agent because it’s cheap and makes the stuff really potent.

LISTEN | A front-line worker in Thunder Bay, Ontario, speaks about the consequences of the overdose crisis

North6:43Thunder Bay outreach worker talks about the worsening opioid crisis

The drug crisis in Northern Ontario continues to escalate. Last year, there was a record number of people dying from drug-related overdoses. At the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, for example, 152 people died from overdoses, according to preliminary data from the provincial coroner. That’s a 50% increase from the number of deaths in 2020. Many supporters don’t see next year as better. Kyle Arnold is an outreach worker in Thunder Bay. He shared his experience with CBC’s Logan Turner from Thunder Bay’s only warm-up center. 6:43

Often unexpected benzos in drugs

This finding was replicated in the study, as the urine test revealed that many people were unaware of the presence of benzodiazepines in the drugs they were using.

“Benzodiazepines are a sedative, and so when that was combined with an opioid, it actually had higher increases around potential poisonings or overdoses,” she said.

Some of the other study findings include:

  • Two-thirds of survey respondents said they use substances alone, without any support or mechanism to increase their own safety.
  • 61% of participants said they were concerned that their medications contained other substances they were unaware of.
  • 57% said if they knew the drugs they were taking contained fentanyl, it would make a difference in their use.
  • Four in 10 respondents did not know which specific opiates were in their system.
  • “A very high number” of respondents who had experienced their own drug overdose or witnessed an overdose in the previous six months.

Abigale Sprakes, an assistant professor at Lakehead University’s School of Social Work, says her new study sheds light on the increasingly toxic and unpredictable illicit drug supply in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Submitted by Abigale Sprakes)

Recently, an alert was issued by the Canadian Community Drug Use Epidemiology Network about nitazene, a synthetic opioid believed to be several times more potent than fentanyl and which may increase the risk of overdose. accidental.

The organization issued the alert in six locations: British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland, Toronto and Thunder Bay.

The Lifeguard app, which provides information and public resources to reduce the risk of overdoses in communities, has also issued ten alerts in the Thunder Bay area since the start of 2022, all relating to different variations of “down” – a lethal mixture of heroin, fentanyl and other substances — which were linked to a high number of overdoses.