British Columbia

2 new $50,000 drug testing machines deployed in Vancouver, B.C.

Two new drug testing machines are being deployed in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, an area hit hard by the opioid overdose crisis. The devices will let users check what's inside their street drugs before they consume them.

The devices will be available for users to check what's in their illicit street drugs

Daniel Beaverstock, right, watches while Jeremy Kalicum runs tests on drugs Beaverstock bought on the street. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Daniel Beaverstock produces two tiny morsels of 'down' he bought on the street in the Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He hands the first sample of drugs to Jeremy Kalicum, who operates the new Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer at the Molson Overdose Prevention site on East Hastings Street.

"I believe it's fentanyl, and it's one of the stronger ones that I've experienced lately," says Beaverstock.

Sure enough, the new $50,000 spectrometer finds the drug contains a high amount of fentanyl, about 20 to 25 per cent. About half of the drug is caffeine, and the rest is Mannitol, a sugar used as a bulking agent.

A sample of 'down' is tested on a new Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer at the Molson Overdose Prevention site in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

But the real surprise comes with the second sample, which Beaverstock says is much weaker — it doesn't appear to have any fentanyl at all, and instead contains about 20 to 25 per cent heroin, with caffeine making up the rest.

"It's quite uncommon to find heroin in the supplies anymore. Almost everything has fentanyl," says Beaverstock.

The spectrometer is one of two that Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) is deploying in the community. A third unit has been in service at the Insite supervised injection site for nearly a year.

Daniel Beaverstock holds a piece of 'down' he bought on the street in the Downtown Eastside. Surprisingly, a test revealed that this sample actually contained about 25 per cent heroin — something that's become quite rare as fentanyl floods the supply. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The one demonstrated earlier this week will be available to test drugs at overdose prevention sites at St. Paul's Hospital, the Overdose Prevention Society, the Molson Overdose Prevention site and the Powell Street Getaway.

The second new device will be handled by a technician with the Lookout Society in the next month or so.

The machines can run a thorough, non-destructive test of drugs in just a couple minutes.

The spectrometer mashes the sample of drug it's testing, but it can still be consumed by the user. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The results are saved in a massive trove of data that can be used to warn drug users of bad batches, inform policy-makers and researchers and, of course, let the user know what he or she bought before dosing.

In the past, users asked dealers for heroin. Now it's all 'down,' a mysterious cocktail of various opioids and other drugs. Many people in the Downtown Eastside expect, and even desire fentanyl due to its strength, but the mystery contributes to the startling number of overdoses, hundreds of which are fatal in B.C. each year.

"Nobody wants an unknown dose of an unknown drug," said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer with VCH.

"This drug checking program also helps us provide some of the evidence that we need to do something about the drug supply," he said. "Legalize, regulate and make them safer."

"This is a dangerous game," says Daniel Beaverstock of using street opioids. A couple new drug testing devices in the Downtown Eastside should help users know what they're consuming. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Beaverstock knows first-hand how dangerous it is for drug users in the community. He has overdosed about 40 times, going into cardiac arrest six times. Sometimes naloxone and oxygen is enough to revive him, other times it has taken CPR.

Now he's a peer supervisor at the Molson OD prevention site, with a message to other users:

"This is a dangerous game, you know, don't feel so full of shame ... that you hide away," he said, encouraging people to test their drugs and avoid using alone. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."


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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.