A synthetic drug found in fentanyl in Kamloops is the same drug that led to a mass overdose event in Brooklyn in 2015 in which those affected were described by onlookers as acting “zombielike.”
Interior Health has issued a warning after a drug-checking machine — Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer — revealed that beige pebbles found in Kamloops contained caffeine, heroin, fentanyl and a synthetic cannabinoid called AMB-FUBINACA.
Interior Health said the AMB-FUBINACA substance causes “speedy, trippy-like symptoms” with hallucinations. In high doses, users of the synthetic cannabinoid can appear to be having what looks like an opioid overdose, but will not respond to Naloxone, a medication that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
AMB-FUBINACA was the drug involved in a mass casualty overdose event in Brooklyn four years ago in which 18 men were taken to hospital after being found in what the New England Journal of Medicine called “zombielike” state, based on observations by onlookers.
Those who had overdosed on the synthetic drug fell into “a trancelike state, groaning and moaning, their eyes lifeless and their movements slow and seemingly mechanical,” according to a December 2016 New York Times article.
The synthetic cannabinoid was originally developed by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer as a strong depressant, but never tested on humans as the company abandoned its research.
AMB-FUBINACA was also listed as contributing to about 20 overdose deaths in New Zealand in 2017.
Dr. Trevor Corneil, Interior Health’s chief medical health officer, said health officials are not aware of any deaths in which the cannabinoid is the only substance.
“Often overdose deaths are caused by a mix of different substance together and we're not seeing any increase in overdose deaths related to this substance, relative to the impact of fentanyl, which is the major toxin we have in our drug supply right now,” he said.
Corneil said the discovery of the drug is a good example of the level of sophistication that both harm-reduction workers and users have been able to access in the province.
“This is the problem with criminalization, in that it takes away any of the safeguards that the system puts in place to ensure that people get the product they think they're buying and it hasn't been mixed with something else,” Corneil said.
He said workers are seeing that users are becoming more aware that they need to have their illicit drugs tested and when they learn what's in their drugs, they make better decisions.
The testing machines at supervised drug-use sites look at a large database of drugs, which Corneil said is used for both research and by police.
“Many of them are unusual and rare and we're finding that manufacturers and suppliers are trying different new substances all the time ... trying to make a buck off people who are quite marginalized by the criminalized setting around them,” Corneil said.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the AMB-FUBICANA tested in Brooklyn in the summer of 2015 was 85 times as potent as the main agent in plant-grown marijuana — THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Synthetic drugs like AMB-FUBICANA and K2 are made in labs and are a world apart from natural cannabis.