Together with Interior Health, UBC Okanagan’s harm reduction team has been expanding access to its drug checking services and taking its drug-testing services on the road. The BC coroner’s office recorded a total of 1,716 overdose-related deaths in the province in 2020, corresponding to a 74% increase compared to 984 deaths recorded in 2019. In addition, 165 overdose-related deaths were recorded in the province in January, corresponding to more than five deaths per day, while nine of these deaths occurred in Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops.
“Our goal is to provide information about what is in clients’ substances and support informed decision-making,” says Lauren Airth, a health specialist with UBC Okanagan’s Campus Health team. “This is the same courtesy we extend to people who choose to drink; they always know the percentage of alcohol in their drink, how different drinks will affect them and the recommended limits alongside community support services when they’ve drunk too much. Everyone deserves this level of knowledge and support regarding their substance of choice.”
According to Airth, the drug checking service has been available since December; however, the harm reduction team want the public to know how to access drug checking opportunities in an informative and confidential manner. Currently, drug checking services are now available in Penticton, Vernon and Kelowna several times a week.
In the summer of 2020, the UBCO campus health harm reduction team began speaking to the community about how the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on people who use substances.
This initiative demonstrated the significant existing stigma about substance use, insufficient resources and support, and the need for greater substance-use education. It was also revealed that COVID-19 stressors were leading to an increase in substance use.
Interior Health has been expanding its drug checking programs in recent years, including services such as fentanyl test strips, offered both on-site testing at various community sites, as well as a take-home test kit model, benzodiazepine test strips, and the use of Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy machines to check for dangerous contaminants in several communities across the region. Specifically, FTIR machines use infrared lights to examine drugs such as cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), heroin and others for the presence of toxic fillers.
The BC Centre for Substance Use has supported the use of FTIR, along with fentanyl and benzodiazepine test strips, for checking drugs for dangerous substances. The test strips used by UBCO are sensitive to fentanyl and its analogues, as well as to benzodiazepines.
Detecting benzodiazepines is important, since many recent overdoses that have involved fentanyl also contained benzodiazepines – a dangerous combination, since the effects of benzodiazepines cannot be reversed by Naloxone, which typically reverses fentanyl overdoses.
Currently, UBCO offers drug checking services at the UBCO campus and in downtown Kelowna every Wednesday, Vernon on Tuesdays and Penticton every Saturday until the end of March.