Day 6

How a new drug-checking kit could turn smartphones into overdose prevention tools

Dr. Dan Werb expects his new device to cost around $300. Similar tech today costs thousands

Posted: July 30, 2021
Last Updated: July 31, 2021

DoseCheck is a device that can breakdown the components of a street drug, checking for potentially toxic components. Co-developer Dr. Dan Werb hopes its projected price will make it more accessible to organizations that do not receive federal funding for drug-checking projects. (Submitted by Dan Werb)

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2020 was the deadliest year ever recorded for Canada's overdose crisis. Experts and advocates say that better access to drug checking is key to reducing deaths. Dr. Dan Werb, co-developer of DoseCheck, expects his new device for drug checking will make the process more accessible by lowering the technology's cost.  8:48

With an increasingly toxic drug supply hitting streets, people who use them are at greater risk of a fatal overdose — but a B.C. activist says improving access to a key harm-reduction technique could save lives.

That technique is known as drug checking, and it uses a device known as a spectrometer to identify what's in street drugs before they're consumed.

"We can save lives by getting one of these spectrometers and by training people to use the spectrometers and encouraging people to test their drugs before they ingest them," said Jon Braithwaite, a drug-user advocate.

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But for the Vancouver Network of Drug Users (VANDU), where Braithwaite is a board member, spectrometers remain out of reach, namely because of the hefty price tag attached to them. 

"I think the machines themselves are worth about $50,000," said Braithwaite. "We're a non-profit organization, we don't have that kind of money just lying around." They also lack the technicians needed to operate them. 

A used spectrometer can cost thousands of dollars, and Braithwaite says that organizations like VANDU need better options to curb an overdose crisis amplified by the pandemic.

A device known as a spectrometer is commonly used for drug checking, but their high price tag can put them out of reach for small organizations. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

During the pandemic, border closures pushed dealers to stretch their supply with dangerous additives like fentanyl and benzodiazepines. Braithwaite first noticed this when a regular client at VANDU didn't respond to the high like usual. 

"On this occasion he did a shot, and closed his eyes, and he didn't say anything," recalled Braithwaite. He "sat there with his head cocked to the side. It was just out of the ordinary." An hour later, he woke up and went on his way, Braithwaite said.

2020 was the deadliest year ever recorded for Canada's overdose crisis. Health Canada reports that 6,214 people died as the result of an overdose — an average of 17 people each day. According to B.C.'s latest numbers, this year isn't looking any better. 

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"It's very hard to tell beforehand whether you're going to ingest benzodiazepines," said Braithwaite. "It comes in all sorts of colors, it looks exactly the same as the normal fentanyl does." That is what makes drug checking even more important, he added.

Answer to a problem

A solution might come from Dr. Dan Werb, an epidemiologist and executive director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation in Toronto. 

Over the last four years, he has been developing a cheaper, portable drug-testing device alongside Dr. Drew Hall, a colleague from the University of San Diego where Werb is an assistant professor.

"We're academics, we're scientists," Werb told Day 6 host Brent Bambury, "I'm [not] a technologist, so I think we're coming at this from a different angle."

Werb, left, and Drew Hall co-developed DoseCheck. (Submitted by Dan Werb)

The device, called DoseCheck, is about the size of a smartphone, Bluetooth-enabled and made up of a circuit board, sensor and battery. 

When voltage runs through the sensor, different drugs create peaks at different voltages. Each peak's height signals the concentration of that drug within the sample. Sensors can be changed to detect new contaminants as they're discovered in the drug supply.

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That data is then sent to a smartphone app which performs the analysis and gives the user a breakdown of the drug.

In 2019, the device was announced as a finalist in Health Canada's Drug Checking Technology Challenge, launched a year earlier to encourage innovations in harm reduction. 

Werb said that drug-checking technologies aren't widely available, and the machines that are remain pricy because of a lack of interest from companies.

"It's a non-viable business model for major technology companies," he said. "People who are structurally vulnerable and using drugs, and frontline harm-reduction workers, that's not a huge market." 

Werb expects DoseCheck will retail between $300 and $350, a price he hopes will be friendlier to centres like VANDU who don't receive federal funding for drug checking. It is expected to hit the market within the next year to 18 months. 

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He also hopes DoseCheck will extend access to drug testing into Canada's more remote areas. 

Users will continue to rely on street drugs 

Although VANDU cannot robustly test drugs at their location in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, there are currently three places in Vancouver that offer spectrometer testing.

Many regions, including B.C., also offer basic drug checking with fentanyl strips that yield a yes or no analysis, and for fentanyl only. Benzodiazepines, for example, aren't picked up by the test since they're not in the opioid family. 

A fentanyl test strip is used at Vancouver Coastal Health in Vancouver. The test strips are more commonly available for drug checking, but only alert users that fentanyl — not other drugs — is present. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Braithwaite worries that without the proper tools, people will continue falling prey to the toxic drug supply. And if they're not dying from it, he said that they could become vulnerable to violence or sexual assault when they unknowingly consume heavy sedatives like benzodiazepines.

He also believes that tainted drugs are here to stay, even after the U.S. border opens up again because lacing opioids with cheap additives are profitable for dealers.

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Werb agrees, pointing to how, historically, drug markets develop new efficiencies when under pressure. "You don't often see markets kind of reverting back to less potent forms of drugs," he told Bambury. 

Meanwhile Braithwaite says that drug users will continue to purchase drugs illegally. "They've got no choice," he said, noting the lack of a federal fentanyl supply program — and need for greater supports.

"The government is not supplying injection centers with these machines or with the technicians. That's what we need."


Written and produced by Cassandra Yanez-Leyton.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.