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Province expands fentanyl testing in British Columbia

Fentanyl test strips will be available in all overdose prevention sites in B.C. and new technologies will be piloted in Vancouver.

A test strip used to check for presence of illicit fentanyl in such drugs as heroin, crystal meth and cocaine in this undated handout images provided by Vancouver Coastal Health.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Vancouver Coastal Health / Metro Web Upload

A test strip used to check for presence of illicit fentanyl in such drugs as heroin, crystal meth and cocaine in this undated handout images provided by Vancouver Coastal Health.

British Columbia is expanding drug testing throughout the province to combat the ongoing overdose crisis.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy announced Friday that fentanyl test strips – which have been used at Vancouver’s Insite since last July – will now be made available at all overdose prevention sites in B.C.

On top of that, a new machine, a Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer, will be tested in Vancouver to quickly test and identify the chemical make up of street drugs, which may be able to detect the presence of harmful contaminates like fentanyl.

Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer Dr. Mark Lysyshyn said fentanyl testing at Insite has led to fewer overdoses at the supervised injection site.

“Clients who tested positive were more likely to reduce their dose and less likely to oversdose, proving that drug checking is a harm reduction intervention,” said Lysyshyn.

Darcy said drug testing will be an important tool in preventing overdoses going forward.

“Drug checking is something that will give people the information that they need to make choices about how much to use and whether to use. This information can save a person’s life,” she said. “In September alone, over 80 families have been devastated with the loss of their loved ones [from overdose]. This is heartbreaking, it’s unacceptable and it’s preventable.”

If the spectrometer proves to be effective in Vancouver, Darcy said the technology could be expanded to other parts of the province.

Vancouver drug activist Dean Wilson applauded the move.

“I originally asked for drug testing in 2001 and nobody has had the balls to do it until now, so I want to say thank you very much,” Wilson said. “The fact that we’re going to be able to figure out what’s actually going in our bodies is huge. Without a doubt, it’s going to save lives.”

While the new testing will help, B.C. Centre on Substance Use addictions specialist Dr. Keith Ahamad warned reaching many drug users remains a challenge.

“The majority of people who have died as a result of drug poisoning are using drugs alone, and they’re not engaged in care,” said Ahamad. “The reality is that the majority of people that use drugs don’t actually have an addition and a functioning addictions treatment system won’t actually reach these people.”

He hopes giving people the option of testing their drugs will encourage those people to connect with services.

“My hope, as someone working on the front lines, is that drug checking will bring accountability to the drug market and give all British Columbians greater information of what their drugs may contain and make [people] safer.”

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, there have been 1,103 suspected illicit drug overdose deaths in 2017 as of September, up from 607 during the same period in 2016.

The province first declared the overdose crisis as a public health emergency in spring 2016.

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