Critics say drug-testing expansion in Metro Vancouver not enough

Despite Vancouver health authorities expanding the use of drug-testing machines in Metro Vancouver, critics have voiced concerns that the scale of services offered is not enough to curb the increase of overdose deaths caused by toxic drug supply.

In 2021, Fraser Health purchased three drug-testing machines valued at $50,000 each to detect harmful drug substances and provide results within minutes, with the aim to use this technology in more areas of the region. Furthermore, Vancouver Coastal Health, which also has at least three of the machines, has stated that it also plans to increase testing.

“Sometimes, I have to wait until the next day to get results. Because of long lineups, I only get my dope tested when I buy from new dealers and am scared,” said Jerry Coustin, who uses a drug-testing service in the Downtown Eastside, in his interview with the Vancouver Sun.

Illicit drug toxicity has been identified as the leading cause of “unnatural death” in the province, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings, and fire-related incidents combined from 2017 to 2022, according to B.C.’s chief coroner.

According to an e-mailed statement provided by B.C.’s health ministry, “23 per cent of overdose deaths were due to extreme fentanyl concentrations,” while benzodiazepines are being increasingly detected in illicit drug samples, increasing the risk of fatal overdose. “Our government invests $1 million annually to health authorities for drug testing. Each health authority uses their funding in slightly different ways,” reads the statement.

“Sometimes, it’s just one batch that is contaminated with harmful substances. Other times, it’s what regularly gets into the supply,” said Jana Baller, a drug-testing coordinator for Fraser Health, who operates the infrared-scanning machine at SafePoint, a supervised consumption site in Surrey. “The testing process is anonymous. I give them a printout of their results and go over each substance identified, including how they will affect the body.” The technology at the drug-testing centre is used to identify potentially fatal drug compounds, including fentanyl and benzodiazepines in samples provided.

Baller added that she runs drug samples in a priority sequence for clients who wait on-site. Other clients who drop off samples earlier in the week receive their results within a five-hour window. A total of 10 tests are conducted each week, and testing takes place on Wednesdays from noon until 5 PM.

The only other drug-testing services available in the Fraser Health region are provided by Purpose Society in New Westminster.

In addition, drug-checking services are conducted at two Downtown Eastside sites by Vancouver Coastal Health and include an overdose prevention site operated by the Overdose Prevention Society site and at Insite, a supervised consumption site run by the PHS Community Services.

“It’s extremely busy,” Sarah Blyth, director of the Overdose Prevention Society, who has witnessed clients lining up around the block during weekdays when technicians arrive on site. “We need longer hours and weekends. If people don’t check their drugs, they don’t know what they’re taking.”

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