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Harm from ‘Robbery Dope’ on the rise

The unregulated drug supply has seen a spike in benzodiazapines — ‘benzos’ — which plunge vulnerable people into dangerous blackouts, stealing their memories, and worse, their personal safety

Paula Carlson
Editorial and Program Director

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Across British Columbia, the drug toxicity crisis is regularly discussed through the number of those who have prematurely passed away. And rightly so. During the first six months of 2023, according to the BC Coroners Service, more than 1,200 people have died from drug overdoses.

Unregulated drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in British Columbia for people aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural disease combined.

But the crisis causes harm in many ways outside of death rates.

The unregulated drug supply is constantly changing. The supply looks very different now than it did prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — partly due to increased border crackdowns. Historically, prohibition policies have always made street drugs more dangerous.

Since 2020, benzodiazepines (benzos) have become a prominent feature in B.C.’s supply, with the detection rate of benzos spiking from 15 per cent in July 2020 to 52 per cent in January 2022, according to the BC Coroner Service’s Illicit Drug Toxicity report.

Unregulated benzos — which typically contain much stronger derivatives or chemical compounds than prescribed benzos used for anxiety or sleep issues (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Ativan) — are commonly mixed with opioids such as fentanyl and sold either as “benzo dope” or “down,” with some people who use drugs (PWUD) purchasing benzos unknowingly. For those who regularly use “down,” or depressants, the unpredictable supply means that in some situations, benzo dope is what is available.

Regardless of the evolving supply, many people intentionally seek out benzo dope due to the euphoric effects produced by benzos, combined with the fact that benzos extend the half-life of fentanyl into something that is more akin to heroin. 

For others however, especially those who are using benzos unknowingly or in unpredictable quantities, the sedative effects of benzos can be harmful, with symptoms that may include confusion, dizziness, drowsiness, dangerous withdrawal, passing out and memory loss or “blackouts.”

In some cases, the mix of opioids and benzos can lead to blackouts that last for hours or days at a time.

‘I just felt so vulnerable’

According to Alice (her name has been changed to protect her identity), her memory has been severely impacted by the benzos in the illicit opioid supply.

“I have to always have my partner with me when I use drugs now. Sometimes I forget what I’m doing so he’ll be like, “honey let’s go to the washroom,” and I’ll have to ask him what I’m doing in the washroom,” Alice says about her changed experience.

“It really does affect a lot of people,” she continues, “I love benzos, but the benzo dope can really mess me up if I don’t know what I’m using… I don’t remember a lot of things and it freaks me out.”

The prevalence of “benzo blackouts” and long-lasting impairment can have particularly serious consequences for women and other gender minorities.

“That memory loss just means that other women like me are more likely to be harmed. Like I said, when I’m in a blackout I’ll turn the corner and I’ll start crying because I don’t know where I am,” says Alice.

In a new research project exploring the impacts of the unregulated drug supply on women and other gender minorities who use drugs, the effects of benzos are far-reaching.

Among the 30 people interviewed in Metro Vancouver and Victoria, study participants, including Alice, described being made more vulnerable by the increase of benzos in the unregulated supply. Many experienced being sold or given benzos at a higher potency than anticipated, or without their consent or knowledge, leading them to blackout for long periods of time or pass out completely. In some of these instances, women spoke to experiences of being robbed, assaulted or raped.  These experiences are so ubiquitous that Alice has nicknamed benzo dope “robbery dope.”

“A so-called friend robbed us after we took a hoot [of benzo dope] without knowing”, explains Alice, speaking to the prevalence of benzo-related violations.

“I just felt so vulnerable because like he could have done anything to me and I wouldn’t have remembered. And that’s when I feel the worst about myself. Like, why does this have to happen?”

Women and gender minorities who use drugs expressed having little recourse following incidents of robbery, assault or rape due to memory loss of the events, and in fact reported experiences of discrimination, further criminalization and widespread mistrust of the police.

Benzo risk: Unconscious for hours

According to those interviewed, this dynamic allows predatory people to target women and gender minorities with impunity.

“I have a friend who was sexually assaulted by a guy… she only has a few vague memories of what happened. She wouldn’t report it to the police though, you know, because we can’t really trust them,” says Alice.

While many discussed using benzo dope with no issue, without the quality control provided by legal regulation, the combination of benzos and opioids heightens the risk of complex overdoses. Worst of all, naloxone — a lifesaving medication that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose — does not work on benzos.

People often remain unconscious for hours following a benzo dope overdose, increasing the risk of overdose-related complications. Benzos alone, like opioids, can affect people’s ability to breathe properly, further increasing the likelihood that a benzo dope overdose might be fatal.

The fear of being taken advantage of or harmed in the context of a benzo blackout meant that many of the women and gender minorities we spoke to preferred to use alone at home. This is contradictory to the advice given through B.C. government messaging to never use drugs alone due to the crisis level risk of overdose. Many women and gender minorities were willing to take this risk in order to avoid being targeted, robbed or assaulted by others in community.

Criminal consequences have people hiding benzo use

On Jan. 31 of this year, the B.C. government, through a Health Canada exemption, decriminalized the possession of small amounts of some illegal drugs for personal use — including opioids, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA (Ecstasy).

But benzos were not included in B.C.’s decriminalization framework. While opioids and stimulants still make up the bulk of law enforcement confiscations, benzos are now common in the supply. A decriminalization measure that excludes benzos entirely, especially in a context where the unregulated market, makes it hard to predict which drugs contains benzos and puts PWUD at continued risk of criminalization and negative interactions with police.

The fact that benzos aren’t included in decriminalization also potentially reduces people’s awareness of the impacts of benzos in community, as people hide their benzo use to avoid criminal justice-related consequences.

Alice says the current situation with benzos is just one more example of why a regulated, predictable supply is desperately needed.

“Sometimes I think I’m in a dream or I’m sleeping and I come to and I’m on the floor or I’m outside, like how did I get there? Like where am I? Honestly, I wish they could do something to take it out of the dope and substitute it with something a little different, just not as strong.” 

Filed under: Vendor Voices

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Paula Carlson

Paula Carlson

Editorial and Program Director

For three decades, Paula Carlson has worked as an editor and reporter at various newspapers throughout the Lower Mainland, contributing stories and stick-handling special projects that have won more than 50 industry awards for news, feature and opinion writing, page layout and design. Her work has appeared across B.C. and Canada. She's fairly certain a good cup of coffee improves almost anything.

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