British Columbia

UBC lab develops new, portable drug-checking device ahead of limited decriminalization

The Hein Lab is working on new technology they say can identify drug concentrations under five per cent, which is often the case for opioids. The device comes as the province is set to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

Advocate hopes decriminalization will destigmatize drug-checking process for those who fear criminal charges

An up-close picture of a black box with knobs and buttons on it, next to a drug bottle and vials.
A team at the University of British Columbia is collaborating with the U.S.-based company Axcend to develop a portable version of high-performance liquid chromatography instruments, pictured here at the university's Hein Lab. (Submitted by The Hein Lab)

A lab at the University of British Columbia is working on new drug-checking technology, including a device they say can identify lower concentrations of drug components.

Sara Guzman, a graduate student working at UBC's Hein Lab, is helping test a new, portable version of high-performance liquid chromatography instruments, or HPLCs, which she says can identify drug concentrations below five per cent.

"We are hoping to lower the barriers associated with this high-quality analytical technology and translate it into drug-checking," she said. 

"It will increase sensitivity but also effectiveness and reduce human error."

The technology, developed by the U.S.-based company Axcend, comes as B.C. is set to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs by the end of the month.

A wider shot of various laboratory equipment.
The Hein Lab is pictured at UBC. Advocates say the technology is welcome ahead of the provincial decriminalization of possessing small amounts of illicit drugs. (Submitted by The Hein Lab)

Drug-checking helps people understand what's in their drugs so they can make informed decisions.

The free, confidential service is done with the help of various technologies, and is typically offered in places such as safe consumption sites and music festivals.

The main technology being used to check drugs is an FT-IR spectroscopy, whose main limitation is being unable to properly detect concentrations under five per cent — which is often the case for opioids, Guzman says.

The latest B.C. Coroners’ report showed that the province is on track to surpass 2,000 drug toxicity deaths for a second year in a row. Our associate producer Negin Nia joins us to discuss new drug-checking technology, developed here in British Columbia.

"Even an extremely small concentration of something like fentanyl can be lethal depending on one's tolerance," she said.

She adds that while the technician operating the device can make rough estimates, this can be subjective and lead to the wrong analysis.

A computer in a lab next to a large printer-like device, with wires seen across the image.
The big HPLC-MS used to check illicit drugs at UBC's Hein Lab in Vancouver, B.C. (Submitted by The Hein Lab)

The Hein Lab says it plans to eventually provide the service for free to drug-checking sites and distributors working with clinics.

It aims to have the device ready for use by the end of April this year.

Decriminalization is not safe supply: experts

As of Jan. 31, people age 18 and older will be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA within the province.

While harm reduction experts say it is too early to understand the full impacts of the policy, decriminalization does not mean there will be a safe supply of drugs.

Drug-checking is one type of harm-reduction service offered by regional health authorities, non-profits, and community-based organizations to try to curb the lethal consequences of toxic drugs.

Jennifer Matthews, a drug-checking implementation lead at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, told CBC that using a wide array of drug-checking technologies — including devices like the HPLC, FT-IR and test strips — is the best approach.

"The goal really is to try and pair technologies because every … strategy has its own limitations," she said.

"What we want to do is maximize the benefit of all of those to try and get the most complete picture that we can."

Jeremy Kalicum, co-founder of the Drug User Liberation Front, says the new technology is an important step in addressing the toxic crisis. 

"A lot of these things [drug-checking technologies] have been put in place to respond to the overdose crisis when really they are just good practices in harm reduction," he said. 

There is hope however that decriminalization will destigmatize the drug-checking process for those who don't get their drugs checked out of fear of criminal charges.

"Ultimately, what you want to make sure is that people feel comfortable in accessing whatever that service," said Kalicum. 

"You aren't really able to overcome that without addressing the underlying systemic things."


  • This story has been updated to clarify that UBC's Hein Lab will be providing drug-checking services for free but not the devices used in that service.
    Jan 24, 2023 2:26 PM PT


Negin Nia

Associate Producer

Negin Nia is a multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. She currently works as an associate producer with current affairs at CBC Radio in Vancouver. Her stories cover the intersections of health, community and social change.

With files from The Early Edition