Calgary mobile service helps prevent overdoses

Feb 8, 2024

A recent article published by CBC and authored by Boshika Gupta examined the effectiveness of Calgary’s drug checking pilot program, Drug Checkin YYC, launched by the local advocacy organization Alberta Alliance Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly (AAWEAR).

The testing service is delivered via the organization’s mobile site three times a week, and uses a a Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer to analyze the constituents of drug samples. In addition, the drug-checking service is free and confidential, provided inside a private space.

“The FTIR works by shining infrared light through a substance,” said Anita Tibben-Wood, AAWEAR’s drug checking manager in Calgary, in her interview with CBC News. “The different frequencies give us like a fingerprint graph that’s unique to that substance and we will compare that with spectrum samples to figure out what’s exactly inside.” She also noted that as part of the drug checking service, detection tests are carried out up to 10 times a day with an FTIR spectrometer, as well as with test strips to analyze drug composition.

According to Tibben-Wood, one of the main risks of unregulated drug supply is dangerous adulterants that can lead to toxic overdose. “It’s important to get it tested so you know what you’re consuming. [It] just gives you peace of mind and the power to make an educated decision,” she said.

AAWEAR is focused on providing an inclusive and non-judgmental space for individuals of all backgrounds. “People could have different types of relationships with substances, and it doesn’t make you a bad person if you decide to enjoy a substance, whether that’s recreationally, medicinally or you’re using it in a dependent way,” said Shelby Suazo, the provincial drug checking manager with AAWEAR. “Because, in reality, life is hard and … we’re here to provide some safety in our community for people who use drugs because we’re in an unregulated drug supply that’s very toxic and we deserve some sort of regulation.”

Alberta’s number of opioid overdose deaths reached a record high in the first eight months of 2023, with a death rate from drug poisoning is 41.1 per 100,000 people, while the death rate in Calgary is 47.3 people per 100,000. Moreover, 40% of overdose deaths occurred inside homes in 2023, there has been a significant increase in the number of individuals dying outside, 38% in 2023 compared to 23% in 2022.

Drug Checkin YYC is the only mobile drug-checking service in Western Canada. The pilot project in Calgary will end in March, but AAWEAR plans to expand its services to Edmonton this summer. “[We’re] here to provide some safety in our community for people who use drugs because we’re in an unregulated drug supply that’s very toxic and we deserve some sort of regulation,” said Suazo. “We’re here to say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do this, let’s do it safely because we want you to make it home at the end of the day.'”