In a job that’s part outreach, part technical, drug checking technicians play a pivotal role in community harm reduction.
Community drug checking services started being offered in 2017 in response to the ongoing toxic drug crisis. Many community drug checking services in BC use a Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer in combination with fentanyl and benzodiazepine test strips, which technicians are trained to interpret.
The results give people potentially life-saving information about what’s in their drugs.
“It only exists to provide information, and people make their decisions based on what's right for them,” said Mia Pohl, a drug checking technician with Vancouver Coastal Health.
“It's not my place to tell them what the right way to do things is.”
“We are all drug nerds, every last one of us”
Pohl first got started as a drug checking technician at Insite, a supervised consumption site in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, because she needed a job. She stayed because she’s always wanted a career where she can help people.
“Drug checking is a good way to be able to satisfy my desire to be technically proficient at something, and then directly use that technical proficiency to help as many people as possible,” said Pohl.
Pohl’s starts each day setting up her drug checking station at Insite. Some days, she has non-stop samples. No matter how busy the day gets, Pohl is always ready to talk drugs with people and answer their questions.
“I joke with them, ‘thank you for making me do my job’ because every drug checker adores talking about substances, like, we are all drug nerds, every last one of us,” said Pohl.
“I joke with them, ‘thank you for making me do my job’ because every drug checker adores talking about substances, like, we are all drug nerds, every last one of us.”
Mia Pohl with the drug checking set-up at a community site. Photo courtesy of Mia Pohl.
For Amelia Martzke, the ANKORS Drug Checking Program Coordinator, the days look a bit different. Martzke is the only full-time, paid drug checking technician serving the BC West Kootenays region, which means she splits her time between the ANKORS Nelson site and travelling to nearby communities.
Martzke’s travel days are focused on checking as many samples as possible because her visits in the neighbouring communities are limited.
“Mobile drugs checking does tend to be focused more on reaching populations who are using primarily methamphetamine and down in more, sort of, dependent patterns and that arose from the toxic drug crisis hitting these communities really hard,” said Martzke.
“When I initially implemented the drug checking, I wanted to make sure that it would reach the people that are at greatest risk.”
Talking About Drug Checking
While the technical training is important, both Pohl and Martzke emphasized the interpersonal aspect of drug checking.
Pohl’s matches her energy with the person accessing drug checking and adapts her approach to each individual. She’ll also tailor the harm reduction messaging and drug checking results depending on how often a person visits drug checking.
“I wait for people to give me the opening for me to even ask permission to keep talking to them because I don't know what they want and I don't want to assume,” Pohl said.
“It's always a balance of not wanting to piss people off so they keep coming back to you.”
Sign drawn by Mia Pohl advertising drug checking services. Photo courtesy of Mia Pohl.
“It’s so much more than simply telling someone what’s in their substance,it could be a connection to resources that are really needed by people as well.”
For Martzke, her approach depends on whether she’s in Nelson, or traveling. A big part of how she builds a rapport and delivers results while mobile drug checking relies on community partners, like Tanis Carson, an ANKORS outreach support worker.
Sometimes people will drop-off samples and Martzke can’t get in contact with them. That’s where Carson comes in. She’ll help facilitate getting results back to people and having that conversation with them.
“I find a lot of the folks that we support have so much to share and they don't always have someone who's there to listen,” said Martzke.
When it comes to the types of questions people have about drug checking, people often want to know about how drug checking works.
“It's free and fast and relatively accessible and it's a tool that people should use to make sure that they are going to be safe when they're using substances,” said Martzke.
“It’s so much more than simply telling someone what’s in their substance, but it could be a connection to resources that are really needed by people as well.”
This blog post is one part in an ongoing series being produced by The Drug Checking Project team. The goal of the series to give an in-depth look into what drug checking is, the impact the service has, the people involved across BC, and where drug checking is going.