Cocaine laced with toxic chemicals that worsen the drug's effects has been on Sudbury's streets for at least three years, said an outreach worker with the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth.
Cassie Pearson, the HIV/IDU outreach lead for the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth, said cocaine cut with a drug called levamisole has become more common in Sudbury.
“It is quite (common) in Sudbury,” she said.
Levamisole is currently used in Canada to rid animals of parasitic worms.
The drug was used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and colon cancer, but human use was banned in Canada in 2003 due to its adverse side-effects.
Pearson said illicit drug manufacturers and cartels cut levamisole into cocaine because it is relatively cheap.
“They're cutting it because it makes it lighter and fluffier.”
According to the New England Journal of Medicine the drug is also speculated to enhance the euphoric effect of cocaine.
But when levamisole is mixed with cocaine it has been linked to necrosis, killing skin tissue, and neutropenia, a disorder that reduces a person's white blood cells, making them more susceptible to infections.
“We're seeing flesh-eating, especially when it's injected,”
Pearson said, describing the effects of the necrosis.
But Raymond Landry, a counsellor with the Réseau Access Network Hepatitis C team, said without a lab test it is impossible to tell if cocaine has been cut with levamisole.
Landry said his front-line workers have seen the same symptoms Pearson described.
“It's hard to pinpoint it to levamisole itself, because there could be plenty of other cutting agents in the drugs that are going around,” Landry said. “The word 'levamisole' has been around for a while. Some swear that it appeared in some of the product that was going around in the last couple years. We certainly heard it on the streets.”
According to an academic paper published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, published in June 2012, Levamisole has been identified as a cocaine additive in the United States since 2003.
By 2009, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration estimated 69 per cent of the cocaine it seized contained levamisole.
Landry said the Réseau Access Network has treated an increasing number of intravenous drug users for wounds and open abscesses on their bodies in recent years.
In some cases, he said, they have had to call ambulances so clients could receive more thorough treatment at the hospital.
Both the Réseau Access Network and the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth work to reduce harm from illicit drugs by educating clients about the adverse effects of drugs, and the unknown dangers that can happen when they are cut with other substances.
The Sudbury Action Centre for Youth also operates a needle exchange program to reduce the spread of disease amongst intravenous drug users.