A new street drug testing site has opened in Victoria’s North Park neighbourhood to provide anonymous drug testing services for free. The testing site is located at a storefront on the corner of North Park and Cook St and uses strip tests as well as instruments to evaluate the presence of fentanyl and benzodiazepines in drugs, yielding results in minutes.
This initiative is part of an innovative harm reduction approach operated by the Vancouver Island Drug Checking project, which was launched by a group of scientists from the University of Victoria.
“People can bring any sample to us and we’re able to try to test that sample and give people as much information as possible,” said Dr. Bruce Wallace, research scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) and associate professor at UVic’s School of Social Work and Co-Chair of the Pacific Housing Research Network (PHRN). “We can be able to detect fentanyl and report on some of the ingredients that might be more linked to overdose, but it’s also around creating a respectful, non-stigmatizing area.”
Dr. Wallace added that his team uses multiple drug checking instruments to determine a sample’s main active ingredients, fillers or cutting agents, as well as any unexpected drugs and the presence of fentanyl.
According to Dr. Wallace, running additional tests can offer people who use drugs valuable information within a market where products such as MDMA and cocaine are not regulated. “Sometimes it’s around just offering that quality of assurance that what people have or what they intend to have is what they have,” he said. “I think drug checking is one way to really address the stigma when we can actually work with the substance and talk about it and get as much information and support as possible.”
The Vancouver Island Drug Checking project also releases monthly reports about their testing results online, including information such as the number of samples that test positive for fentanyl, carfentanil and benzodiazepines and the types of drugs they were detected in.
The testing site is open every weekday and is able to conduct its testing without the involvement of law enforcement due to a public health exemption.
According to Dr. Wallace, the goal is to expand the program so that the Victoria storefront becomes a hub for testing across Vancouver Island. Since the testing technology is expensive, other overdose prevention sites in Port Alberni and Campbell River could serve as collection points and send samples to the hub.
“If drug checking is going to have a meaningful impact, it has to be operating at a scale that’s really impactful […] not just one site in Victoria,” said Dr. Wallace.
Moreover, he added that more public health exemptions were needed to send the samples to Victoria. “Public health is really supportive of that. The challenge is how to do that while also we’re criminalizing drugs and people who use drugs and people who carry drugs. Because it requires that people access us.”