Manitoba college of pharmacists nixes fentanyl tests for drug users

​The College of Pharmacists of Manitoba has stepped in to stop the sale of tests that help users determine if their drugs are laced with fentanyl.

College of Pharmacists of Manitoba bans sale of fentanyl contamination tests

The fentanyl test that looks like the one shown here has been used in British Columbia since July to test street drugs directly. (Courtesy Mark Lysyshyn, Vancouver Coastal Health)

The College of Pharmacists of Manitoba has stepped in to stop the sale of tests that help users determine if their drugs are laced with fentanyl.

Brothers Pharmacy ordered the tests after getting in touch with health officials in British Columbia who were offering them to drug users at Insite, a safe-injection site run by Vancouver Coastal Health.

The $5 tests have users mix a small amount of a water-soluble street drug like cocaine or heroin into water and then dip a test strip to see if the drugs are laced with fentanyl.

"We had lots of phone calls, lots of interest," said Michael Watts, the owner of Brothers Pharmacy. "Obviously I was very disappointed."

Among those who inquired about the test were health officials at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and a group of mothers trying to battle fentanyl overdoses and deaths.

Watts got a call from the college last week asking for an interview about his plans to sell the test.

Then, on Monday, he was told to discontinue sales immediately "due to the possibility of false negatives and the implications that would have as well as citing the fact that these strips aren't Health Canada approved for testing samples in water. They're strictly approved for urine samples," said Watts.
"One of the problems I've seen is people get addicted to opiates without knowing they're taking opiates," said Michael Watts, the owner and manager of Brothers Pharmacy. (CBC)

Watts said the manufacturer did assure the pharmacy the strips were fairly reliable using samples in water, and the fentanyl tests have been used to test street drugs directly since July at the Insite clinic. 

In its first month of testing alone, Insite found 86 per cent of the drugs tested positive for fentanyl.

Todd Mereniuk, the deputy registrar for the college, said in a statement that the college is trying to "ensure we have adequate information" and "until we have that information, we have asked the pharmacy not to sell the test kits for a purpose that may not be appropriate."

Mereniuk said the college is seeking information from Health Canada, the manufacturer of the test strips and health officials in B.C.

A spokesperson for the college was not available to provide further comment.

'All tests have some level of error'

"It does give some information to the potential user or family member — whoever is using the test — it gives some information about the drug. It's not 100 per cent reliable, which most tests aren't. All tests have some level of error," said Watts.

Watts is now working with Vancouver Coastal Health to get some data on how reliable they've found the tests. He's hoping the college will reverse their decision once they see the data.

Watts hopes the tests will be approved for use here and can be made available publicly.

"I don't necessarily like it, but I have to respect the college's ruling and I'm going to do whatever I can to gather data and provide a service that I think is important to the people of Winnipeg and Manitoba," said Watts. "We're not going to get rid of fentanyl. It's going to be here probably to stay, unfortunately.  If we can give people informed decisions on what they're using, hopefully that will reduce some of the harm."