Whitehorse testing for fentanyl in street drugs gradually gains ground
Harm reduction service at Blood Ties, Four Directions began testing drugs for fentanyl in July
The number of people using a Whitehorse service to test if their drugs contain fentanyl is increasing, says a harm reduction counsellor, but could still be more.
The testing is done by Jesse Whelen, the harm reduction and wellness counsellor at Blood Ties, Four Directions.
The drug supply in Whitehorse is contaminated, said Whelan, so it makes sense to take a pragmatic approach that prevents deaths.
"People will use drugs so we wanted to do what we can to keep people safe and to try to prevent overdose as much as possible," he said.
"We know we have had a number of overdoses in our community," said Whelen. "Unfortunately in a small town like this it hits everybody."
In addition to the testing, the group also offers naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdoses, and provides clean drug-using equipment to prevent the transmission of communicable diseases. It also helps people arrange treatment for addictions.
The testing for fentanyl is simple and relatively fast.
Whelen scrapes a small sample off a pill, adds it to a solution and puts in a test strip.
Within a few minutes the strip indicates whether there's fentanyl in the drug. One red line if there is fentanyl, two red lines if there isn't.
It does not indicate how much fentanyl is present.
Whelen said it depends on the person whether they decide to hand over the drug for disposal by the RCMP or keep the drug and use it.
"Sometimes it's a dependency, like a physical addiction, where if they don't have the drug it can make them quite sick," he said.
The user may be self-medicating because of trauma or pain or they could have developed an addiction while using legally prescribed opioids, he said.
"Once that addiction takes hold it, it can be quite difficult to break, said Whelen. "And so we see people using drugs that are quite dangerous despite the dangers of using them."
Whelen said in the first few months after the testing service began in July, only a few people came by, but now it's up to a couple of people every week and he is encouraging more to drop in.
People in Whitehorse seem to generally support harm reduction services, he said, unlike some communities in other jurisdictions where even supplying naloxone kits is an issue.