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The Question Is…How does ‘benzo dope’ affect the community?

Julie Chapman

We’ve heard a lot about fentanyl-tainted street drugs in recent years, but another extremely dangerous drug combination is “benzo dope.”

Benzo dope is made up of benzodiazepines that are mixed in with other illicit substances, the most common being heroin. However, benzodiazepines have been detected in other illicit substances, too.

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs known as depressants, because they slow body systems down. They are prescribed for things such as anxiety, sleep and seizure disorders, alcohol withdrawal, as a muscle relaxant and for some other medical reasons. Some of the prescription drug names include Xanax, Ativan and Valium.

Because of the sedative effects of these drugs, benzo dope overdoses are not reversible with naloxone (Narcan) — an opioid antagonist — making those types of overdoses more dangerous and more likely that a person could die from them.

However, due to the fact that there are usually other substances added to the illicit drug mix that are from the opioid group, administering Narcan will help with reducing the effects of the opioids, therefore, giving it to people suspected of suffering an overdose was recommended by all five of the people I talked to who work at overdose prevention sites in the Downtown Eastside.

But it’s not just drug users at risk from the effects of benzo dope. I had a recent experience with someone in the building where I live who I suspected was under the influence of this substance. It turned out that the person was going through withdrawal symptoms — severe ones — from benzo dope. By severe I mean visual hallucinations, hearing voices of people who were not there, paranoia and violent outbursts that were unpredictable and dangerous.

These symptoms created a dangerous situation for the person experiencing them because of the erratic and confrontational way the person was acting. He got other residents involved and frustrated by his actions. The person would sit in his room and bang metal pipes on his floor, yelling at the top of his lungs. That was part of the reason why I thought he was under the influence of benzo dope.

Usually, when someone is experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal from street drugs, they are weak and won’t be able to do many of the physical things he was doing, such as roller-blading down the hall or swinging two metal pipes, etc.

Back in the day, when there was still heroin available on the streets and not just fentanyl in everything, going through withdrawal was much different. Heroin withdrawal would feel like getting the flu, only worse. The body would be weak and there would be physical pains. Often the pain would be in the legs, but it could be throughout the body. Sometimes a person would get physically sick, throw up and have diarrhea. The combination would leave a person weak.

Today, withdrawal from the current toxic drug supply can be unpredictable and risky for all involved.

I am thankful I have been stable on a Methadose, which is a prescription heroin substitute, for more than 17 years. Meanwhile, our province is currently losing five to six people every day to toxic drugs, with the majority of those fatalities occurring in the DTES. In 2016, the provincial health officer declared the first-ever public health emergency following an unprecedented increase in overdose deaths. That emergency continues.

As for the man who was causing a commotion at my building, he was taken away by the police. They kept him for an hour or two, then let him back out. When he got back to our building, specifically, my floor, he was worse than he was before. By worse I mean he was more agitated, he was still hallucinating and he was acting more paranoid.

This went on for hours and I was afraid for my neighbours and myself. So the harms caused by benzo dope and other poisoned street drugs impact not only the drug user, but the community at large.  A person holding his head

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Benzo dope overdoses are not reversible with naloxone (Narcan) — an opioid antagonist — making those types of overdoses more dangerous and more likely that a person could die from them.

Photo by Owen Vangioni /Unsplash. This column is co-managed by Megaphone peer reporters Nicolas Crier and Julie Chapman. 

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Julie Chapman

Julie Chapman


Julie Chapman is a born-and-raised Vancouverite who now lives and works in the Downtown Eastside. Julie was a longtime volunteer with SWUAV (Sex Workers United Against Violence), and is currently involved with the B.C. Association for People on Methadone and the BC Centre for Substance Use. She is a member of The Shift peer newsroom, and is a published poet and writer. She is also a self-taught pianist.

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