Drug-checking spectrometer available at Vancouver consumption sites
Published Friday, November 10, 2017 9:35AM PST
Last Updated Friday, November 10, 2017 7:36PM PST
A potentially life-saving pilot program is being tested in Vancouver, offering users another way to check illicit drugs for traces of hyper-potent opioid fentanyl.
The City of Vancouver and BC Centre for Substance Use have purchased a portable drug-checking machine to be used at two supervised consumption sites in the city.
The machine will be used at Insite on East Hastings Street, and at the Powell Street Getaway, to check drugs for fentanyl and other substances.
Drug users can submit samples of street drugs anonymously for analysis of their chemical makeup. The machine is able to test opioids, stimulants and psychoactive drugs such as MDMA.
Both facilities also have fentanyl test strips on hand, something the provincial Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says will be more readily available at other supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites in B.C.
The ministry has earmarked $322 million for the fight against B.C.'s overdose crisis and addictions care, $3 million of which will go toward drug testing.
Minister Judy Darcy said she's hopeful the new and expanded testing options will save lives.
"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," Darcy said.
For harm-reduction advocates, the program is a welcome measure, but some say more needs to be done.
“To know what (drugs are) exactly contaminated with is very important information, so we’re happy and we support that, but at the same time, in order to stop the deaths, new need to take even further and stronger action to making sure that there’s a safe drug supply for people,” said Sarah Blyth of the Overdose Prevention Society.
The way to do this, she added, is to give people better access to opioid-assisted therapy, where drugs are provided on a regular basis in a safe clinical setting.
“There is movement toward that, but it’s slow,” Blyth said. “It should have happened by now.”
Vancouver police have also expressed their support for the strategy.
Those who have received this type of therapy say they no longer have to rely on street drugs.
“It changed my life, 100 per cent,” said a man named Spike, who is on the therapy. “It saved my life. The drug supply is poison and we have alternate supplies.”
Vancouver Coastal Health says it’s working with the province to expand access to opioid-assisted programs.
In the meantime, officials are hoping drug testing will help keep more users alive.
“When people’s drugs are positive for fentanyl, they reduce the dose they’re going to take, which is a recognized harm-deduction measure and when they do that, they overdose less often,” said VCH Dr. Mark Lysyshyn.
Friday’s announcement came a day after the latest numbers were released from the province's coroner service which showed more than 1,100 British Columbians have died of suspected drug overdoses this year. Approximately 83 per cent of the OD deaths had fentanyl detected, an increase of 147 per cent from this time last year.
In most cases, the fentanyl was combined with other illicit drugs, the coroner's report said.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson thanked front-line workers during the news conference announcing the new program, saying he knows they've made heroic efforts to save lives that otherwise would have been lost.
"We're in the midst of… the most tragic epidemic of preventable deaths that any of us have experienced in our lifetimes, and there's no doubt we all need to do more to turn the tide on this," Robertson said.
He said he's seen big changes in the city, but knows that further harm reduction and treatment measures are needed.
"We have lost far too many people, and we have to take every step that we can that we know will save lives," he said.
The pilot program, which includes further research into drug checking technologies, was rolled out in Vancouver last week but officially announced on Friday.
Researchers will examine how the new program is used and if it has any impact on risk of overdose, and whether users who typically take drugs alone or don't use previously offered services are interested in the new option.
The results of the testing will also be analyzed for a clearer picture of what substances are in street drugs circulating in Vancouver.
The drug-checking service will be available at Insite on Mondays and Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., and at Powell Street on Thursdays and Fridays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
With files from CTV Vancouver's Nafeesa Karim and Maria Weisgarber