British Columbia

Health officials warn of limitations to newly available opioid test strips

A newly available drug testing strip is the first of its kind to be able to detect carfentanil but still can't detect dozens of other opioids, leading to warnings for recreational drug users hoping to rely on the strips during the summer festival season.

'One of the biggest concerns for us is an individual getting a false sense of security'

A U.S. based harm reduction group shares the concerns of officials but says putting the ability to test for contaminated drugs in the hands of both recreational and addicted drug users is still a step in the right direction. (DanceSafe website)

As the summer festival season ramps up amidst the ongoing drug crisis, demand for products that can test party drugs for deadly opioids is also on the rise. 

Now, a harm reduction group in the United States is selling a Canadian-made fentanyl test strip to the general public online, but there are concerns about how it might be used.

Vancouver Coastal Health said because of the product's inability to detect dozens of fentanyl derivatives, it won't be offering test strips outside of Insite, a supervised consumption site, at this point.

The newest strips can detect fentanyl, carfentanil and at least two other derivatives.

"As the strips get better it might be possible to offer them in the community," said Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer with VCH.

BTNX, the Toronto-based biotech developer that created the technology, says it's cautious about who it sells to for the same reasons.

"One of the biggest concerns for us is an individual getting a false sense of security if [the result] is a false negative. Then they go and inject it and they find that it's a lethal dose," said Iqbal Sunderani, CEO of BTNX.

No alternatives

Those concerns are also shared by DanceSafe, the group selling the product on its website. But executive director Mitchell Gomez says there's no real alternative for people who are worried about contaminated drugs.

The group's original intent was to sell the strips for intravenous drug users — specifically, people who are addicted to or use heroin, said Gomez.

But when the product went up for sale he said he received a flurry of questions about testing popular party drugs and found there was a demand for the strips among recreational drug users.

"We had a lot of people reaching out about how to test cocaine, how to test MDMA [ecstasy]. People are deeply concerned about fentanyl being cut into these other substances," he said.

Shortly after posting the product for sale, Dance Safe added a number of warnings to the page and detailed instructions for use. 

'Those people aren't looking to die'

The process for testing heroin and intravenous drugs with the kit is as simple as dipping the test trip into them. However, testing powdered drugs is more complicated.

The substance must be dissolved in water before dipping the strip in the solution. Drug users who still want to consume the drug are instructed to either drink the water or dehydrate the mixture to return the drug to powder form.

The end goal of both groups — intravenous drug users and party drug users — is the same, according to Gomez.

"Those people aren't looking to die, they're looking to get high," he said.

A worker tests for fentanyl at Insite during a nine month pilot project that saw a 25 per cent reduction in overdoses among people who tested their drugs before using, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. (VCH)

How the two user groups respond to positive test results is likely to be quite different.

Both Lysyshyn and Gomez said people who are addicted to intravenous drugs will likely opt to inject even if fentanyl is present, but may choose to do so in smaller, safer doses.

That's one reason Lysyshyn says the tests make the most sense at supervised injection sites.

"Being able to provide these strips at a safe injection site, where there's nurses on site, where there's Narcan on site, is obviously far better than just giving users the strips," said Gomez.

"It's undeniable that it's better to do it as part of a broader harm reduction service but I think that anything that moves us in that direction is a positive thing."

During a nine-month pilot project when the test strips were first offered to drug users at Insite, VCH said people who tested their drugs before consumption were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose if they got a positive drug check and 25 per cent less likely to overdose.