More Canadian cities using drug-checking services

As the number of overdose-related deaths continues to climb in Alberta, reaching a record high in 2021, a new pilot drug-checking service has been launched in Calgary as a prevention tool. The program, organized by Alberta Alliance Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly (AAWEAR), also aims to prevent deaths linked to contaminated drug supply.

AAWEAR has received federal funding for its program, and has announced that it plans to operate its services out of a van at different sites in Calgary which includes users being able to submit samples of drugs to be tested for toxic substances, including fentanyl.

“This is one more way that people can really regain agency over what they’re consuming and open up options for themselves,” said Euan Thomson, executive director of EACH+EVERY: Businesses for Harm Reduction, which has partnered with AAWEAR.

According to Kathleen Larose, executive director of AAWEAR, individuals addicted to substances and recreational users would have access to the service. “We’re seeing a lot more [recreational users] here in Alberta,” she said in her interview with CBC News. “We have to ask ourselves, is this an addiction issue or can you put in measures and tools…to overall prevent this issue from continuing?”

Calgary’s pilot drug-checking project will follow similar services offered across Canada. Larose mentioned that the “ultimate goal” of the project is to establish a framework that can be implemented across Alberta.

“This is not uncharted territory … lots of countries do drug checking now as a free service to the public,” said Thomson. “This is absolutely something that we should have done years ago, and it’s just nice to see it coming to Alberta finally.”

At this point a number of Canadian cities have implemented drug-checking programs and services, including Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Victoria, Vancouver, and Kamloops.

Since some drug-checking services share their test result data, some safe consumption sites can alert users in order to prevent the consumption of contaminated samples.

For instance, one program drug-checking program in Victoria shares its weekly test results report on Twitter. “If we could check all drugs at a higher level upstream, then this could yield a potential 67 per cent increase in drug poisoning prevention,” said Larose.

In addition to being used as a prevention and recovery tool, the project is also expected to reduce health care spending in Alberta.

“Every single drug poisoning costs an average of $1,600 on average in downstream hospital fees,” said Thomson. “So if we can reduce the number of overdoses and poisonings happening at the street level, that means there’s less EMS deployment. It means there’s less emergency visits overnight, stays at hospitals. Every single one of those things is going to reduce the cost to the public sector.”

Currently, the program organizers are preparing the health exemption from the Public Health Agency of Canada for the handling of illicit substances, and plan to implement the project later this summer. “The federal government is so keen to see this move forward and the municipality is so keen to see this move forward, I think it would just serve everybody’s interest,” said Thompson.

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