British Columbia

Drug testing by mass spectrometer difficult for non-experts to use, says former RCMP officer

Although advocates want to see drug testing equipment — like mass spectrometers — available to front line workers and drug users, there could be a number of obstacles.

Specialized techniques and equipment can be hard to use outside of a lab

Shambhala music festival is one of few music festivals that offers free, no-hassle drug testing. A group associated with the festival is currently fundraising for a mini mass spectrometer to be able to test for more types of drugs. (CBC)

Harm reduction proponents often say "test before you ingest," but some experts say that testing what's inside street drugs is easier said than done.

ANKORS, a group that does harm reduction for the upcoming Shambhala music festival, has been fundraising to purchase a mobile mini mass spectrometer.

"We need something that's very sensitive and accurate," said Chloe Sage, who represents the group.

"We need to be able to move it out to the festival and back out to the community and to be able to offer testing all year round in the community."

But Wayne Jeffrey, former head of the RCMP toxicology section in B.C., says a mobile unit might not be feasible.

'Not an instrument you buy and plug in'

Jeffrey said the mass spectrometer is what every forensic lab — including the RCMP —  uses if it wants to identify drugs.

Results from a mass spectrometer can not only identify the drug, but can also tell you how much drug is present, he said.

"When you get an analysis from a mass spectrometer, you are 100 per cent sure that's what drug is there."

Mass spectrometers measure the particular ionic signature of chemical compounds. They are used in many different applications. (Nadina Wiórkiewicz/Wikipedia Commons)

But Jeffrey cautioned that a mass spectrometer is a long way from a simple drug testing device that anyone can use.

"This has to be set up scientifically, run by scientists, the analysis and interpretation done by scientists and maintained. This is not an instrument you buy and plug in and put drug samples in."

The equipment often has to be in a temperature-controlled environment with special gas and power outlets, and each one has to be individually calibrated to each drug sample.

"You've got to get the standards, then you get the instrument, then you must be trained, then you do the interpretation," he added. "This just doesn't say 'it's fentanyl.'"

Legality of testing illicit drugs

The other major issue when doing this kind of analysis, Jeffrey said, is the legality.

The person doing the analysis is going to be in possession of illicit drugs, he explained, "so [they are] going to have to be licensed to do that".

These are issues that the B.C. government's provincial task force will have to consider, he said, as one of their goals is to establish more testing services to help people find out if their drugs contain fentanyl.

There could be a place for mass spectrometers on the front lines at a place like Insite, but only "if it's set up properly, maintained properly and run by qualified personnel ... and done within the legalities of the law," he concluded.

With files from The Early Edition.

To listen to the audio, click on the link labelled Former B.C. RCMP head of toxicology Wayne Jeffrey on mass spectrometers and drug testing