Drug-checking improvements wanted: B.C. Centre for Substance Use

Mar 18, 2022

According to Jenny Matthews, the manager of a drug-checking program being evaluated by the BC Centre for Substance Use, checking illicit drugs for deadly toxic substances is the most effective option to prevent fatal overdoses in the absence of a safer supply. Moreover, in her interview with CTV News, Mathews also noted that drug-checking services should be expanded to rural and remote communities in British Columbia.

Matthews noted that individuals who use drugs in non-urban areas often cannot get them tested for deadly contaminants such as fentanyl and benzodiazepines. “Ideally, we want there to be a safer supply so that people don’t have to fight for access to drug checking, but in the short term we want to try and increase access to testing,” Matthews said.

Drug-checking programs in B.C. employ two technologies: take-home test strips that test drug samples for fentanyl or benzodiazepines and spectrometry, which involves a technician operating a machine called a spectrometer. For both methods, results are available in five to 10 minutes.

There are currently 12 spectrometers used for drug-checking in the province, but none of them are available to Northern Health.

After testing, the testing data is entered into a provincial database, which is used by the BC Centre on Substance Use to analyze trends as a part of a research project funded by Health Canada.

The centre’s latest report published in January 2022 demonstrates that a total of 1,180 samples were tested from communities participating in the project; 88% of them originated from the Vancouver Coastal region, 9% were from Interior Health, 2% from Vancouver Island and 1% from Fraser Health, the largest in the province.

Recently, B.C. health authorities have also been issuing alerts regarding the increasing presence of fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, in street drugs.

In February, B.C. Interior Health had issued an urgent drug alert about a high risk of fatal overdose from tested drugs that contain up to 55% fentanyl, compared to the previous average of 10%, as well as 25% of benzodiazepine, which cannot be reversed with naloxone and can result in nervous system depression, respiratory failure and death.

Dr. Carol Fenton, a medical health officer with Interior Health, said there are limitations in checking samples to protect individuals at risk of overdose.

“The problem is we don’t have a really good sample of what’s going on the streets because our drug-checking data is only those people who are interested in and willing to bring in their drugs and get them checked. So, I would imagine that’s a relatively small proportion of people using the street supply,” said Dr. Fenton.

In addition, Matthews added that raising awareness about getting drugs tested is crucial for individuals using drugs.

“What’s really important is that when people are getting their drugs tested, they are having conversations with a technician,” she said, adding the current pilot programs need core funding so more technicians are trained, which would allow the service to be scaled up.”