The overdose crisis in British Columbia has killed more than 10,000 people since 2016, when it was first declared a public health emergency. More than 32,000 deaths have been recorded across Canada during the same time period.
In BC, the drug supply is very different now than it was before the onset of the pandemic. Benzodiazepines had been noticeable in the supply since around 2019, but drug-checking data and coroners reports show that since 2020 they’ve become a much more prominent feature—particularly in the supply of “down,” or drugs sold as state-banned opioids.
“Benzodope” has become ubiquitous here. Etizolam, an unregulated benzo frequently cut into the supply, is the fourth most prevalent substance linked to overdose deaths, behind methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.
Yet on January 31, a BC pilot will decriminalize possession of small amounts of four drugs: meth, cocaine, opioids and MDMA. No benzos.
“The fact that BC’s policy excludes benzos is a huge lost opportunity.”
MDMA was detected in 2 percent of drug toxicity deaths between July 2020 and August 2022. Etizolam, meanwhile, was detected in 38 percent of drug toxicity deaths in the same time period. It will remain just as criminalized as it was before the decrim pilot.
BC is the first Canadian province to receive such an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. As someone who regularly uses opioids and benzos, I was shocked—and worried—to see that this exemption did not include the latter. BC health officials did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends, especially in the last year, to benzodope. People use benzos consciously and unconsciously, and the fact that BC’s policy excludes benzos is a huge lost opportunity,” Caitlin Shane, a staff lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, told Filter.
“In my somewhat cynical view, the province was never really interested in decriminalizing all drug users. It is no accident that BC’s policy will only benefit a very small subset of people who use drugs. The low threshold quantity, and the exclusion of benzos, are conditions that allow government and police to keep certain drug users under their thumbs.”
In approximately 16 years of using benzos, I’ve become very familiar with their benefits and their harms, including benzodope overdose. And we’re already up against a lack of effective benzo harm reduction measures.
Pharmaceutical benzos are widely prescribed for anxiety disorders and as sleep aids, among other indications. Common examples include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan). Benzodope typically contains derivatives or analogs of these substances—close chemical relatives of legal benzos that so far haven’t been federally regulated.
Bromazolam and flubromazolam, for instance, are in a class of benzo derivatives called triazolobenzodiazepines. Etizolam is another kind of benzo analog. All these substances have sedative effects. Symptoms can include dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, muscle weakness, memory loss, slurred speech, and loss of coordination and balance.
Similar to xylazine “tranq dope” in the eastern United States, the intention behind benzodope is often to stretch the half-life of short-acting fentanyl into something that feels a bit more like heroin. But without the quality control provided by legal regulation, the result is an increasingly chaotic and fatal drug supply. Benzodope overdoses are uniquely harmful experiences that can involve blackouts lasting several hours to several days, during which time people are left vulnerable to assault and robbery. “Robbery dope” is actually one of the nicknames.
Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and host of the Crackdown podcast, described the current landscape of benzodope as “an apocalypse of deadlier overdoses.”
“Naloxone only works on the opioid part of the overdose,” he told Filter. “After you get them back, people remain unconscious for hours [while] you have to monitor their breathing.”
Mullins sat on the BC Decriminalization Core Planning table for over a year. He recounts being repeatedly dismissed by government officials who wanted drugs users as to “consult” on the pilot, but not shape it.
“This was a kids table. We got no say over which substances were selected and what the threshold amounts would be,” Mullins told Filter. “I believe benzos were not included because the government was not interested in listening closely to drug users, and government officials are too far removed from the street to know what’s going on.”
Health Canada provided a statement outlining the parameters of the BC exemption, but did not respond to Filter‘s inquiries about why benzos were not included.
“It’s recriminalization by stealth.”
While opioids and stimulants still make up the bulk of law enforcement confiscations, benzodiazepines are playing a larger and larger role. A decrim measure that is not only limited to an absurd 2.5-gram threshold, but excludes benzos entirely, is meant to keep police officers happy, not protect people who use drugs.
If cops detain someone carrying a gram of down, and it’s still criminalized because it turns out to be benzodope, even if that’s not what it was sold as—or it doesn’t even matter because cops are just using the decrim parameters as a pretext to harass people in the street—what’s the point?
There’s no excuse for the limitations of this exemption as it currently stands. People who use BC street supply, especially opioids and by extension benzodope, will continue to be criminalized and stigmatized. If the government were serious about addressing the overdose crisis it would, at the very least, include benzos in this exemption.
“The failure to include benzodiazepines in British Columbia’s decriminalization pilot project means the cops can continue to criminalize people who are caught with benzodope,” Mullins said. “That’s half of what is circulating right now. It’s recriminalization by stealth.”
Photographs of benzodope courtesy of Matthew Bonn.