Toronto’s drug checking pilot to expand

Jan 16, 2024

In November of 2023, the Toronto Drug Checking Service announced its plans to expand its service, after receiving a new federal grant from Health Canada for the recipients of the Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP). The grant will provide $21 million in funds to 52 organizations across Canada to address harms related to substance abuse.

Specifically, Toronto’s Drug Checking Service has operated as a pilot project and will expand to cover more areas within and outside of the city. Since its launch in 2019, the service has analyzed more than 10,000 samples from the unregulated drug supply in Toronto. Its expansion within Toronto and provincially is aimed at providing services to individuals most affected by illicit and unpredictable supply, such as communities in rural and northern Ontario. 

The program’s funds were used up early in 2023, and it had been operating without dedicated funding, prompting staff to dip into reserves and rely on temporary commitments. “We are so incredibly relieved to have received further funding,” said team lead Karen McDonald, the lead of Toronto’s Drug Checking Service, in her interview with CBC News. “We’re a little overwhelmed by the amount of work that we have to do, but we’re super excited.”

In addition, McDonald added that the funding will go toward doubling the number of sample collection sites in Toronto from five to 10, as well as optimizing the drug analysis process.

According to Tara Gomes, a scientist for Unity Health Toronto and program director of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN), making drug checking services available to more individuals can empower them by helping them determine the composition of their supply. She also added that the program’s expansion can also help harm reduction workers better adjust and target their programs.

“From an individual level, the more we can expand this and make this available to different people in different parts of our city or different parts of our province, the better we can move ahead in keeping people safe. Having the data that is obtained through the drug checking publicly posted and available to researchers, it really helps many people who are organizing within communities.”

Tara Gomes, scientist for Unity Health Toronto and program director of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN)

Moreover, a statement published on the federal government website notes that the service will help groups across the province create and implement their own drug checking programs, with the original team acting as a “central repository” for gathered data. In turn, researchers with Toronto’s Drug Checking Service will analyze the data in order to evaluate unregulated drug supply trends across Ontario and compare them to trends observed in the rest of Canada.

The Canadian government also stated it’s investing over $359 million over the next five years to address the overdose crisis, including implementing new drug checking technologies for supervised consumption sites and other education and awareness services.

“This gives people who use drugs, including those who smoke or inhale their drugs, the opportunity to make informed decisions that may reduce their risk of overdose,” reads the statement.