New mobile device will let Winnipeg's Sunshine House test street drugs for potentially deadly substances

A Winnipeg organization focused on harm reduction and social inclusion has raised enough money to purchase a piece of specialized drug testing equipment. The device will be used in Sunshine House's mobile overdose prevention site.

Mobile mass spectrometer will 'help with knowing how to navigate the toxic drug supply': co-ordinator

An RV is parked in a snow-covered parking lot.
A new mobile mass spectrometer will be housed in Sunshine House's mobile overdose prevention site — an RV that's set up from Tuesday to Sunday in a parking lot on the southeast corner of Main Street and Logan Avenue. (Josh Crabb/CBC)

A Winnipeg organization that already runs a mobile overdose prevention site will soon have a new tool to help keep drug users safe.

Sunshine House, a community drop-in and resource centre located at Sherbrook Street and Logan Avenue, has raised enough money to buy a mobile drug testing device to determine what's in the non-medical street drugs people smoke or inject.

"How we're losing our kin is from the toxic drug supply," said Davey Cole, Sunshine House's mobile overdose prevention site co-ordinator. 

"Folks will use drugs forever, but it's nice to know what you're using. That drug machine is really going to help with knowing how to navigate the toxic drug supply right now."

The $65,000 machine, called a mobile mass spectrometer, is expected to arrive in March and will be housed in Sunshine House's mobile overdose prevention site — an RV that's set up from Tuesday to Sunday, from 11:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., in a parking lot on the southeast corner of Main Street and Logan Avenue.

The machine can analyze any sample type and has a library of several thousand chemical compounds to compare against, Cole said.

Winnipeg's Sunshine House gets new device to test what's in street drugs

2 months ago
Duration 2:02
Agency has raised enough money to buy a mobile mass spectrometer for its safe consumption R-V.

Levi Foy, Sunshine House's executive director, said the machine will let people test their samples without destroying the substance.

"It'll give them a good breakdown, a clear breakdown on what's in their substance," Foy said.

"Oftentimes things are cut with substances that maybe they don't want to do, and this really increases people's risks and it really increases the negative outcomes from toxic drug supply."

Potentially life-saving device

Foy said having the potentially life-saving machine will allow people to make more informed decisions about how, where and with whom they're going to use street drugs.

"If I have a gram of cocaine and I think it's cocaine and it turns out to be 30 per cent fentanyl, that's going to change the way that I'm going to use that cocaine," Foy said.

"I'm not going to use it as fast, I'm not going to maybe use the same doses that I might typically use before."

Similar machines have been used previously at music festivals and large events, but there's never been one available for public use in Winnipeg the way Sunshine House's device will be, said Foy.

Shohan Illsley, executive director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, said the tool will significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of drug poisonings or overdoses.

An an emailed statement, Illsley said it's "a significant step forward," but noted its use will be primarily limited to people in Winnipeg.

"It is important for us to continue to advocate for access to harm reduction services such as this in every community in Manitoba in which people are using substances," Illsley said.

Sunshine House received a federal exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to run its mobile overdose prevention site. It got funding for the RV's programming from Health Canada, but Sunshine House also raised funds to cover the costs of the vehicle itself. 

In total, the organization has received more than $106,000 to get the vehicle up and running and buy the drug testing device.

"The exemption already allows staff and community members the right to be able to bring supplies onto the unit," Foy said.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard said the province wasn't consulted on that exemption or the federal government's decision to fund the services.

In an email to CBC in response to questions on the new initiative, the spokesperson said the Progressive Conservative government is focused on "recovery-oriented care" and "ensuring individuals have access to appropriate addictions support and treatment services when they need them."

Changes in public policy that would have significant lasting impacts on individuals, families, and communities should be based on scientific evidence, which the province is continuing to review and analyze, said the spokesperson.

Sunshine House's mobile overdose prevention site offers supports that include administering naloxone in the event of an overdose and referrals to emergency, health and social services. 

The site also demonstrates how to administer fentanyl tests, and provides information gathered from community members on the toxic drug supply.

Cole said services in the RV have been offered since the end of the October. Since then, there's only been one intervention. That person survived, said Cole.


Josh Crabb


Josh Crabb is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He started reporting in 2005 at CKX-TV in Brandon, Man. After spending three years working in television in Red Deer, Alta., Josh returned to Manitoba in 2010 and has been covering stories across the province and in Winnipeg ever since.