Surge in Cocaine and Stimulant Use in Canada Linked to Increased Drug Deaths

Surge in Cocaine and Stimulant Use in Canada Linked to Increased Drug Deaths
Drug overdoses increased overall from 2020 to 2021, and roughly half of the apparent accidental opioid deaths 'also involved a stimulant,' according to Statistics Canada. (Pond 5)

The consumption of stimulants such as cocaine is on the rise in Canada, contributing significantly to drug-related fatalities, recent federal data suggests.

According to a report released on Wednesday by Statistics Canada, cocaine levels in most municipalities studied saw an increase from January to May 2022 compared to the same period in 2020. Preliminary data for 2023 indicates that this upward trend is likely to continue.

As drug overdoses rose by over 30% from 2020 to 2021, roughly half of the accidental opioid deaths “also involved a stimulant,” according to another report cited by Statistics Canada from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“The data shows that in the last few years, things have worsened,” said Tara Gomes, a research scientist at Unity Health Toronto and a principal investigator with the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network. Gomes emphasized the complexity of the issue, stating, “People are using multiple substances and need multiple types of programs and services.”

Further analysis of the data reveals that five Canadian cities – Halifax, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto – rank among the top ten locations with the highest levels of cocaine in wastewater, according to wastewater monitoring conducted by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

CBC News recently reported a surge in cocaine-related drug deaths and overdoses throughout Nova Scotia. In 2021, almost half of the nearly 80 accidental overdose deaths in the province involved cocaine, a threefold increase from a decade ago. The health authority in Nova Scotia also highlighted that cocaine and the opioid hydromorphone were implicated in a recent “cluster” of suspected overdoses that resulted in a fatality.

Ontario is experiencing a similar trend, with people dying from multiple toxic substances, including stimulants. A report released in September by the ODPRN and Public Health Ontario revealed that nearly 2,900 Ontarians died from consuming a toxic substance in 2021, almost double the number from three years prior. After the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, there was a spike in deaths resulting from the consumption of at least two types of substances, with most victims having a mixture of opioids and stimulants in their systems.

A new report finds that after the COVID-19 pandemic began, overdose deaths in Ontario from multiple substances surpassed deaths from a single substance.

Gomes notes that the illicit opioid supply has been contaminated with other substances, such as benzodiazepines, which are sedatives used to treat conditions like anxiety. Some individuals may use stimulants to counteract the sedative effects of benzodiazepines.

“We’re focusing so much on the opioid crisis, but people don’t understand there’s poly-substance use,” said Linda Wonitoway-Raw, a nurse practitioner working in a First Nations community northwest of Edmonton. Wonitoway-Raw explains that her patients use opioids and alcohol as “downers,” and then turn to stimulants as “uppers.”

Cities in Canada also displayed high levels of methamphetamine compared to other countries worldwide, though usage has not changed significantly in recent years. Cities in the U.S., the Czech Republic, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand had the highest levels of methamphetamine use in 2022. Wonitoway-Raw points out the challenge in addressing crystal meth due to its low production cost, ease of availability, and frequent contamination with other toxic substances, potentially leading to lethal overdoses.

Further research is required to fully understand the rise in amphetamine levels observed in wastewater in the first half of 2022 compared to the same period in 2020 in major cities like Montreal, Toronto, and the Vancouver area. This could be attributed to an increase in prescription or illicit amphetamine drug use.

With methamphetamine and amphetamine levels consistently higher in Western province cities like Edmonton, Prince Albert, and Saskatoon, experts stress the importance of addressing this complex issue that impacts both regular and casual drug users.

“The reality of the situation is, we are seeing use and associated harms across all populations… these drugs are very unpredictable,” concluded Gomes.