Drug checking reveals more than half of all substances on the street not what expected

published on May 17, 2018

The majority of street drugs tested in Vancouver don’t contain the substance people thought they’d purchased, according to results of a drug checking pilot study to be presented today.

Drug checking allows people to anonymously submit samples of street drugs to be analyzed for their chemical makeup. The pilot study was implemented in November 2017 at two supervised consumption sites in Vancouver operated by Vancouver Coastal Health using a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer and fentanyl test strips, which can test a range of substances, including opioids, stimulants and other psychoactive drugs such as MDMA, and provide results in a matter of minutes.

Over the first six months of the study, researchers tested 1,714 substances, finding that less than two-fifths (39%) were found to contain the substance that the client expected.

Of the 1,006 (59%) samples sold as opioids, only 186 (19%) were found to contain the expected substance in any detectable amount, and 888 (88%) tested positive for fentanyl. Of the 822 samples expected to be specifically “heroin,” only 109 (13%) contained the expected substance (i.e., diacetylmorphine) in any amount. Of the 400 samples sold as stimulants, 354 (89%) contained the expected substance in any amount and 18 (5%) tested positive for fentanyl.

“Drug checking has revealed new information about the Vancouver downtown drug supply – not only were most of the drugs not what people thought they were, they also contained unexpected and potentially dangerous substances, including fentanyl,” said Kenneth Tupper, principal investigator of the study and Director of Implementation and Partnerships at the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU). “What this shows us is that drug checking provides valuable—potentially life-saving—feedback to people who use drugs, which we hope will help them make better informed decisions and contribute to improved self-determination and better health.”

In addition to providing clients with information about the make-up of their substance, drug checking also gives health and other service providers a means to collect and assess information about what is circulating in illegal drug markets, the monitoring and surveillance of which are otherwise notoriously difficult. During the first six months of the study period, operators of the FTIR were able to provide real-time information about dangerous adulterants found in the drug supply to the VCH RADAR network, which provides text message alerts to people who use drugs.

“Our region is facing a public health emergency driven by adulterated street drugs. Drug checking is a tool that helps people identify which drugs may contain toxic adulterants such as fentanyl. We have seen that this service encourages people to take harm reduction measures like reducing their dose so that they can avoid having an accidental overdose,” said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a Medical Health Officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.

The City of Vancouver partnered with the BCCSU to fund the purchase and operation of a specialized drug checking machine for the pilot project in response to the ongoing epidemic of overdoses. The Vancouver health authority service delivery area has the highest rate of illicit drug overdose deaths in the province. In 2017, 366 people in Vancouver died of an illicit drug overdose.

“We lost 50 people in March to fatal overdoses, the second highest number of overdose deaths in a single month since the crisis started” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “With 88 per cent of the street opioid drugs sampled testing positive for fentanyl, it’s never been more urgent to ensure people with opioid addictions have access to safe prescription drugs and health care, rather than being treated like criminals.”

The preliminary findings from the drug checking pilot study were presented at the 12th International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (ISSDP) conference in Vancouver.

Drug checking services are available at Insite, Mondays to Wednesdays from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM.

Additional Information:

Province expands fentanyl testing and launches drug checking pilot in Vancouver:

Report: Drug Checking as a Harm Reduction Intervention

Fentanyl checking expanding to overdose prevention sites


Kevin Hollett, Communications Lead
BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU)
Phone: (778) 918-1537
Email: [email protected]

Tiffany Akins, Communications Leader
Vancouver Coastal Health
Phone: (604) 708-5281
Cell: (604) 319-7530
Email: [email protected]

City of Vancouver
Corporate Communications
Phone: (604) 871-6336
Email: [email protected]