British Columbia

Drug-checking program in Victoria aims to prevent overdose deaths

The free and confidential pilot program is being offered at two harm-reduction sites in the city.

Free, confidential pilot program offered at 2 harm-reduction sites in the city

UVic chemistry co-op student Ashley Larnder, left, and UVic biochemist Ian Garber using the drug-checking equipment at Aids Vancouver Island in Victoria. (Mike Morash/UVic)

A new program to detect contamination in street drugs is being tested at two harm-reduction sites in Victoria. 

The free and confidential drug-checking program was designed by two professors from the University of Victoria: Dennis Hore, professor of chemistry; and Bruce Wallace, an associate professor of social work.

Technicians from the program are testing samples as small as a grain of salt at the AIDS Vancouver Island and SOLID Outreach harm reduction sites. 

The chemical analysis can detect signs of fentanyl, as well as any fillers or cutting agents, said Wallace, who is also a scientist with UVic's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.

"While drug checking has a significant history in nightlife and festivals, it is increasingly being explored as a potential response to the current illicit overdose crisis," he said.

The service is needed in Victoria because more than 100 people in the Capital Regional District died last year from drugs contaminated by fentanyl and carfentanil, said Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to explore potentially life-saving drug checking technologies, which will provide more information on potential interventions and patterns of use," he said in a statement.

The program is also evaluating various drug-testing technologies for efficiency, cost and portability. It is expected to run for three years, using a $1.7 million grant from Health Canada's Substance Use and Addictions Program.

"From big cities to mid-sized centres to rural areas and Indigenous communities, no corner of Canada has been spared," said federal health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor about the opioid crisis.

The aim is to expand the program to other harm reduction sites on Vancouver Island and elsewhere, Wallace said.

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