Earlier in August, Saskatchewan’s two safe supervised consumption sites received rapid testing kits from the provincial government in order to detect the presence of potentially dangerous adulterants.
With the new equipment and training, the staff at the consumption sites will be able to test drug samples for fentanyl and benzodiazepines in about five minutes. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is 50 to 100 times more potent compared to morphine, significantly increasing the risk of deadly overdose. Benzodiazepines are potent sedatives that slow down nervous system function, and when taken together with opiates, can increase the risk of overdose.
“We already have our supervised injection drug use here at our overdose prevention site, and now we can add this additional service here so that people can see if the substances are what they think they are and if there’s any potential contaminants,” said Michael Parker, executive director of the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, which offers rapid testing, in his interview with CBC News.
In addition to the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre, Prairie Harm Reduction has also received the training and equipment to conduct such testing, with both centres now capable of testing drugs for harmful additives.
“Prairie Harm Reduction is excited to be able to offer this service as part of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health’s coordinated efforts to combat the overdose crisis,” said Jason Mercredi, executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in a press release in Saskatoon. “Drug testing allows us to notify the community in real time of tainted street drugs.”
According to health experts, testing drugs by using test strips can serve as an effective harm reduction strategy to reduce the number of fatal overdoses in the province. According to data from Saskatchewan Coroners Service, in 2020, confirmed overdose deaths increased to 283 from 177 recorded in 2019.
Furthermore, from January to June 2021, fentanyl has accounted for 48 of the 73 confirmed fatal overdoses. Notably, neither of the two consumption sites in Saskatchewan have recorded a death in their facility.
So far, two separate tests are available to test drugs. “You literally see one line or two lines that will show if it’s a yes, it contains a substance, or no, it doesn’t,” said Parker. However, provincial health experts have warned that these tests are not 100% accurate, and they cannot be used to determine how much of the substance has been laced into the other, and do not test for other harmful substances other than fentanyl and benzodiazepines. Therefore, health authorities also suggest having naloxone kits available, in addition to having “a buddy system” to ensure the individual is not consuming drugs alone to further reduce risk of overdose.
According to Parker, despite the test being limited in accuracy, it provides “much more accurate information than not knowing at all.” Parker also mentioned that while it may take visitors time to get comfortable with the testing process, he thinks they will make use of it.