British Columbia

Drug testing machine to be piloted in Vancouver as overdose crisis continues

A portable machine will be used in conjunction with fentanyl test strips to check drugs for a wide range of contaminants at Insite and Powell Street Getaway, two safe injection sites in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

Users can anonymously submit samples of street drugs to be tested for opioids, stimulants

The Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer machine can detect multiple substances within minutes. (Belle Puri/CBC)

A drug-checking device that's the first of its kind in Canada is going to be tested in Vancouver — the epicentre of the province's unprecedented overdose crisis — to help prevent more deaths.

B.C. Addictions Minister Judy Darcy and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced that the new, portable machine will be piloted at the city's supervised injection sites, Insite and Powell Street Getaway, several days a week.

The device, called a Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), allows people to anonymously submit samples of street drugs to be tested for opioids, stimulants and other drugs like MDMA. A statement from the province said the machine can detect multiple substances at once within minutes.

"Lives can be saved this way," said Robertson. "Harm reduction has saved lives; it's critical."

Darcy also announced that the ministry is expanding the use of fentanyl test strips to all supervised injection sites in the province. Previously, the free testing had only been available in Vancouver.

"Tackling this overdose crisis takes a whole province … it will take an entire province to turn this around," the minister said Friday.

B.C. Addictions Minister Judy Darcy made the announcement at a safe consumption site in Vancouver on Friday. (Frederic Gagnon/CBC)

The announcements come one day after the province said more than 1,100 people have died of suspected illicit drug overdoses so far this year.

The B.C. Coroners Service says there were 80 suspected illicit overdose deaths in the province in September — up 31 per cent from the same month last year. 

That brought the total for the year to 1,103, surpassing the 982 in all of 2016. Vancouver sees the highest number of overdoses in the province, followed by the cities of Surrey and Victoria.

Fentanyl was detected in 83 per cent of this year's deaths, representing an increase of 147 per cent from the same time period last year. The potent opioid was most often laced in heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines. 

'Knowledge is power'

Dean Wilson, a peer representative with the B.C. Centre on Substance Abuse, said the machine could be a lifesaver.

"Knowledge is power. The fact that we're going to be able to figure out what's actually going into our bodies is huge. Without a doubt, it's going to save lives," he said.

"I originally asked for drug testing in 2001, but nobody's had the balls to do it until now, so I thank you," Wilson added, turning to the minister and the mayor.

A memorial service was held on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the summer, to remember those who have died as a result of drug overdoses in the province. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Darcy also said her ministry is looking at "ramping up" an anti-stigma campaign.

"Nine out of 10 people who are dying are using at home alone," she told reporters on Thursday.

"That's about overcoming stigma, that's about everybody in a family, in a community, friends reaching out and having conversations with people and reducing the stigma.''

The FTIR machine will be available at Insite on Mondays and Tuesdays from 2-8 p.m. It will be at the Powell Street Getaway on Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Fentanyl strip testing was launched as a pilot project in Vancouver in July 2016. More than 1,400 checks were done within the first year of operation — 80 per cent of which came back positive for fentanyl.

A statement said Insite clients who got a positive result were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose. Those who did so were 25 per cent less likely to overdose.

With files from Belle Puri