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New wastewater data reveals surge in drug use as pandemic led to lockdowns

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New municipal wastewater analysis released by Statistics Canada shows that the recreational use of cannabis, fentanyl and methamphetamine increased significantly in five major Canadian cities early on in the pandemic.

Through wastewater-based epidemiology, a breakdown of 14 drugs found in the metabolites of residents in Halifax, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto, reveals narratives specific to each city. But overall, the use of recreational drugs spiked significantly in the spring and summer of 2020 after COVID-19 began to lead to lockdowns.

“The analysis also indicates that estimates for drug use vary significantly from city to city, suggesting that different cities have distinct drug use profiles,” states a segment of the Canadian Wastewater Survey.

The estimates are based on the amount of drug measured in wastewater (i.e., grams) and presented on a load per capita basis, per day, or levels. For each wastewater sample, a positive detection occurs when the target compound is present in a concentration exceeding the limit of detection, states StatCan.

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For Vancouver, the wastewater analysis revealed that the per capita use of fentanyl was four times higher than the other Canadian cities studied, and peaked from April to June of 2020. British Columbia declared a public health emergency over opioids five years ago and recently requested a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal drug possession.

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the number of times paramedics have responded to overdose calls has increased consistently since the start of the pandemic, and continues to reach record highs as of spring 2021. May was the 15th month in a row in B.C. with more than 100 deaths per month due to drug toxicity, found particularly in the synthetic opioid painkiller.

Toronto also saw a significant jump in the use of fentanyl, with the city’s wastewater data tripling for the opioid when comparing tests between March and July of 2020 to the same period the year before. Toronto Public Health shows that the city saw 521 confirmed opioid overdose deaths in 2020, which was 78% higher than in 2019 and 280% higher than in 2015.

The Public Health Agency of Canada states that a number of factors have likely contributed to a worsening of the overdose crisis during the pandemic, “including the increasingly toxic drug supply, increased feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety, and limited availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs.”

For overall cannabis use in the cities studied, the load of cannabis metabolite in wastewater was found to be 28% higher in April of 2020 than just one month earlier. By a large margin, the city with the highest per capita use of cannabis was found to be Halifax, which also reported the highest use for the legalized drug when StatCan first began collecting municipal wastewater data in 2018.

Edmonton continues to have the highest per capita use of the potent stimulant methamphetamine, according to the new wastewater analysis. The city also has the highest rates for possession arrests involving the drug. Law enforcement has raised concerns that “crystal meth” has overtaken the use of opioids across the Prairies. Cost has been a contributing factor, as a tenth of a gram of meth costs $5 to $10, while a single “hit” of fentanyl can run from $40 to $60. Additionally, user perceptions tend to lean towards less fear of overdose when it comes to meth.

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