Research in Action: Lakehead research project sheds light on illicit drug use


A Lakehead University research project focusing on illicit drug use in Thunder Bay found that people are unaware of what drugs they’re putting in their bodies — a situation that can have drastic consequences.

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“That’s really concerning when we are looking at the issue of people who are having accidental overdoses,” says Dr. Abigale Sprakes. “What it tells us is that there is an unsafe drug supply, in the sense that people are getting drugs that they believe are one thing and using them unaware of what they are using, and then are not able to make informed decisions about their use.”

Sprakes, an assistant professor in Lakehead’s school of Social Work, led the study along with graduate student Brooke Raynsford. Nearly 100 individuals replied to a survey and provided urine samples to determine the drugs in their system. The results showed 69-per-cent of participants had used drugs that they were unaware of, and of those substances, 43-per-cent were unknown opiates, such as fentanyl, and 40-per-cent were unknown benzodiazepines, a type of sedative used to treat anxiety and panic attacks.

“To have unknown opiates like fentanyl and benzodiazepines in their system indicates an unsafe drug supply in Thunder Bay and an increased risk of overdose,” Sprakes says.

Along with learning what substances people were taking, the researchers also asked about a person’s history of drug overdose, of using alone, and how they utilized harm reduction services. Nearly two-thirds of participants reported using alone and 43-per-cent reported overdosing in the last six months. The combination of unsafe supply, using alone, and a history of overdose increases the risk of a future overdose, Sprakes notes.

Raynsford’s role was to input the survey results, identify trends, and break down demographic information as well as review relevant literature. This was part of her Master in social work studies and was similar to what she’s been doing with other groups.

“I was surprised by the ways in which the project would be able to guide and inform the work of the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy and other community agencies,” says Raynsford, a registered social worker. “Although not directly linked to the study results, the main conclusion I drew was the importance of representing the voices of individuals accessing services, especially in the harm reduction field.”