Father helps search for easier way to detect deadly fentanyl

An Ottawa man whose son died from a drug overdose in 2013 is now helping Health Canada run a competition to develop a new and improved kit to test for the presence of fentanyl in street drugs.

Steve Cody's son, Nick, died of opioid overdose in 2013

Nick Cody, left, died in June 2013 after ingesting an ecstacy pill laced with fentanyl. His father, Steve Cody, right, wants a simple and accessible way to test street drugs for the opioid. (Supplied)

An Ottawa man whose son died from a drug overdose in 2013 is now helping Health Canada run a competition to develop a new and improved kit to test for the presence of fentanyl in street drugs.

Steve Cody's 17-year-old son Nick died after ingesting an MDMA pill, commonly known as ecstasy, which was later discovered to have contained fentanyl.

Speaking to Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan Tuesday, Cody said his son would likely still be alive if he'd had access to a quick, simple way to test his drugs.

"I really believe Nick was smart enough and would have used something to test it," Cody said.

Ideally, the test could also also be used to analyze cocaine, heroin and even marijuana.

"If they can test, if they can see there's fentanyl, then they can make a choice," Cody said.

Steve Cody is chairing the selection committee that will help Health Canada choose an inexpensive tool for drug users to test for fentanyl. ( Leah Hansen/CBC)

$1M prize

The Drug Checking Technology Challenge is being run by Health Canada as part of the department's harm reduction program, and is open to any individual or organization.

According to Health Canada's literature promoting the contest, the presence of fentanyl in illegal drugs has been on the rise in Canada since 2016, with 72 per cent of apparently accidental opioid-related deaths from January to September 2017 linked to the powerful drug.

If we can help one person, the impact is massive.- Steve Cody

According to Health Canada, users are unable to see, smell or taste fentanyl. Existing detection methods vary in their level of reliability, and in some cases require special training.

At many supervised injections sites in Canada, tiny strips are available to detect fentanyl, but users must bring their drugs in for testing.

"Although there are several different types of products and equipment currently being used, none appear ideal for people who use drugs and those who support them," according to the competition's website.

As chair of the competition's selection committee, Cody said he's hoping the contest will yield a test that can be easily and cheaply administered anywhere, by anyone.

"The contest's not full of red tape," Cody said. "I think the minister took a really good approach. It's open to anybody in the world, and they don't rely define what the criteria is."

Entrants may submit a new technology or improve upon an existing method, with the grand prize winner collecting $1 million. 

According to Health Canada, from January to September 2017, 72 per cent of apparently accidental opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, compared to 55 per cent in 2016. (CBC)

'Helping feels really good'

Following the death of their son in 2013, Steve and Natalie Cody launched Say No for Nick, an advocacy group that uses education and support resources to help prevent opioid and fentanyl use by youth.

Steve Cody said the family wanted to focus on building bridges rather than walls.

For example, they elected to not press charges against the person who sold Nick the fentanyl-laced pills, since they believed that person likely wasn't aware of the opioid's presence, or the risk it posed.

Steve Cody lost his son to an overdose after he took drugs laced with opioids. Now Steve is part of the search to find a better way to test drugs for harmful substances like fentanyl. 9:30

For Steve Cody, being part of the development of a new or improved harm reduction tool is one of the best ways he can honour his late son.

"If we can help one person, the impact is massive. So thinking about helping a lot feels really good."

Health Canada will screen a short list of projects by March, then proceed to an incubation period. The grand prize winner will be announced Jan. 31, 2020.