Province expands fentanyl testing and launches drug checking pilot in Vancouver

published on November 10, 2017

To provide potentially life-saving information to people who use drugs, a new drug checking service is being tested in Vancouver – the first of its kind in Canada. The pilot study began last week as part of the provincial government’s work to test whether making drug checking more widely available will help prevent overdose deaths.

“With dangerous drugs like fentanyl contaminating the majority of street drugs, giving people information on what’s in the substances they are using can help them make informed decisions about whether or how much they consume – and could save lives,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Our research into drug checking will help us answer key questions about how effective and reliable these technologies could be in reducing the devastating number of people dying across the province from overdoses.”

The City of Vancouver has partnered with the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) to fund the purchase and operation of a specialized drug checking machine for a pilot project to evaluate the effectiveness of drug checking services. The portable machine is now being used along with fentanyl test strips to check drugs for a wide range of contaminants at two supervised consumption sites in Vancouver, Insite and Powell Street Getaway.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is also expanding the use of fentanyl test strips in all supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites in B.C. The ministry allocated $3 million to support drug testing province-wide as part of $322 million in new funding over the next three years to combat the overdose crisis and improve addictions care.

“This new drug-testing technology has the potential to save hundreds of lives in Vancouver by empowering substance users to adopt safer drug-use practices and ultimately reduce their risk of overdose,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “I’m proud to support this initiative through a $60,000 grant from the City’s Opioid Contingency Fund to the BC Centre on Substance Use to add a critical prevention element to the continuum of addiction services.”

Drug checking allows people to anonymously submit samples of street drugs to be analyzed for their chemical makeup. The new machine, called a Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), can test a range of substances, including opioids, stimulants and other psychoactive drugs such MDMA. Testing with the FTIR can identify multiple compounds at once in a matter of minutes.

“As an addiction medicine physician, I’ve been witness to the devastating and at times deadly effects of our contaminated, poisonous drug supply. It’s clear we need to implement and evaluate innovative and evidence-based interventions like drug checking services to help people make informed decisions that keep them safer,” said Dr. Keith Ahamad, an addictions medicine specialist with the BC Centre on Substance Use.

Researchers at BCCSU will evaluate how people use the new service, and whether it connects them to substance use treatment and reduces the risk of overdose. The study will also investigate whether people who use alone or don’t access other harm reduction services use the new drug checking service. In addition to giving valuable information to people who use drugs, the service will provide drug surveillance data that will include a detailed analysis of what’s in the illegal drug supply.

The new FTIR drug checking service is available at Insite on Mondays and Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Powell Street Getaway on Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

After a year-long pilot study of fentanyl test strips at Insite, in September Vancouver Coastal Health introduced the test strips in all of Vancouver’s overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites.

“Using the test strips at Insite has shown us that when people get a positive fentanyl result they are more likely to reduce their dose and less likely to overdose,” said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a Medical Health Officer with Vancouver Coastal Health. “So we know that drug checking can help people make safer choices. But we also know that drug checking isn’t perfect. It needs to be used along with other harm reduction practices.”

Fraser Health and Interior Health have recently introduced fentanyl test strips to some of their overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites. The piloting of test strips will be rolled out to the remaining sites across the province in the coming weeks.

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