In December of 2021, fentanyl testing strips that had previously only been obtainable in Regina and Saskatoon have become widely available throughout Saskatchewan. According to Jason Mercredi, the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon, the increased availability in Saskatchewan of take-home drug checking strips is a step in the right direction and will prevent overdoses.
“The fact that they’re going to be accessible for people to use at their home or at parties or music festivals … if they’re planning on going out tonight at the bar, it’s going to help us reduce a lot of deaths across the province,” Mercredi said in his interview with CBC News.
Currently, the public has access to fentanyl and benzodiazepine home drug checking strips at more than 30 locations across the province. So far, out of the 149 confirmed accidental drug toxicity deaths in Saskatchewan reported by the province in 2021, 108 (or 78%) involved fentanyl, which cannot be easily detected.
“We have such a unique makeup in Saskatchewan that rural gets left out,” said Mercredi. “This is just another tool in the tool belt, but drug checking is a big one and the fact that it’s available across the province is huge.”
Marie Agioritis, the Saskatchewan lead for Moms Stop the Harm who lost her son to an overdose, told CBC News that expanding access to the tests is a good first step.
“People will say, ‘Oh, my kid doesn’t [do drugs].’ But let me tell you, there’s a lot of kids out there that still do. And cocaine is prolific,” said Agioritis. “We also need to get [the tests] into the festival environment,” she added. “[People] have to be allowed to go into the tent, grab some drug tests, or even somebody walking around and handing them out so that they’re readily available.”
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Unfortunately mixing benzodiazepines with opioids increases the risk of overdose since both classes of drugs have sedative properties and can significantly depress nervous system function. Importantly, Naloxone, the medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose is not effective for reversing the effects of benzodiazepines.
However, according to the statement released by the province, a negative result on a test strip does not guarantee the substance is safe.
“Test strips only check if certain fentanyl or benzos compounds are present in the portion of the drugs tested. They do not detect other drugs and do not show the amount of fentanyl or benzos present in the substance. These strips are an additional tool to limit potential overdoses,” stated a news release.
“Even if you think you’re just using Xanax or something like that, you should still be checking your drugs and carrying naloxone,” Mercredi added.