Province supplies safe consumption sites with drug testing kits

The Ministry of Health has provided drug testing equipment and training to the province’s only two safe consumption sites, meant to help curb the number of overdose deaths caused by substances laced with potent drugs.

Sask. Coroners Service reported 66 per cent of fatal overdoses were fentanyl-related in 2021

Michael Parker stands inside the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, which now has rapid testing which can detect potent drugs that may be unknowingly laced into other substances and reduce dangerous overdoses in the community. (Matt Duguid/CBC News)

Saskatchewan's only two safe consumption sites, where visitors can use substances with supervision, have received rapid testing kits to detect potent drugs that may be mixed into the substances people are using. 

The training and equipment, provided by the Saskatchewan government, will allow staff to test for fentanyl and benzodiazepines in about five minutes, if the visitor consents. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more toxic than other opioids, and together the two can be even more dangerous. 

"We already have our supervised injection drug use here at our overdose prevention site, and now we can add this additional service here so that people can see if the substances are what they think they are and if there's any potential contaminants," Michael Parker, executive director of the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, told CBC. 

Staff at Prairie Harm Reduction is also receiving the training and equipment to conduct testing, and both centres are now capable of testing. 

"Prairie Harm Reduction is excited to be able to offer this service as part of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health's coordinated efforts to combat the overdose crisis," executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon Jason Mercredi said in a press release. 

"Drug testing allows us to notify the community in real time of tainted street drugs."

The rapid drug testing strips can test for fentanyl, which have been linked to a large portion of confirmed overdose deaths in the province. (Saskatchewan Ministry of Health)

The test strips are a harm reduction strategy meant to curb the number of fatal overdoses in the province. Last year, during the pandemic, confirmed overdose deaths spiked to 283—which is 106 more than 2019, according to the Saskatchewan Coroners Service

From January to June this year, fentanyl has accounted for 48 of the 73 confirmed fatal overdoses. 

Neither of the consumption sites in the province have recorded a death in their facility. 

Not 100 per cent accurate, but helpful

Two separate tests are available, which Parker described as similar to that of a pregnancy test. 

After staff test a sample of the substance, "You literally see one line or two lines that will show if it's a yes, it contains a substance, or no, it doesn't," he said. 

The province warns that these tests are not 100 per cent accurate, don't determine how much of the substance has been laced into the other, and don't clear it as free of other harmful substances. They suggest having naloxone kits available and a buddy around during use, just in case there was an error in the test. 

In an email, the Saskatchewan health ministry said that fentanyl test strips could detect other chemically similar drugs, but will not identify which.

Parker says despite that, it provides "much more accurate information than not knowing at all."

While Parker said it may take visitors time to get comfortable with the testing process, he thinks they will make use of it.

Visitors also don't have to use the substance being tested inside the consumption site available at the Friendship Centre, he said.