Pubdate: Sat, 11 Nov 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andrea Woo
Page: A17


Province widens availability of device for detecting the presence of
fentanyl; medical health officer says lives will be saved

British Columbia has expanded a program allowing people to check their
street drugs for fentanyl before using, becoming the first
jurisdiction in Canada to facilitate the experimental testing on a
wide scale.

Health officials have also purchased a device that detects both the
presence and quantities of deadly adulterants and can provide a more
detailed analysis of not just fentanyl, but other chemically similar
drugs being cut into the local supply.

"Today's announcement is part of our mandate to save lives and prevent
the needless suffering of people, of families, from all across this
province," B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy
said at a news event announcing the expansion on Friday. At her side
were Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and representatives from
Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU).

"As I've said many times before … tackling this overdose crisis takes
a whole province."

Fatal overdoses have soared in B.C. owing to the local drug supply
being poisoned with highly toxic adulterants. More than 1,100 people
died in the first nine months of this year and powerful synthetic
opioid fentanyl was a factor in 83 per cent of those deaths.

The fentanyl-checking program began in July, 2016, as a pilot project
at Insite, Vancouver's first public supervised-injection site. Last
summer, it expanded to four overdose-prevention sites and one other
supervised-injection site in Vancouver; it is now available at all 18
overdose prevention sites and seven supervised-drug-use sites in B.C.

To use the tests, which are adapted from urine tests, users mix a few
grains of their drugs with water in a cooker and then submerge a test
strip into the solution. A result appears within seconds: One line
means it contains fentanyl; two lines mean it does not.

Early data from the VCH pilot last fall showed that people who found
fentanyl in their drugs were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose
and, as a result, were 25 per cent less likely to overdose.

The City of Vancouver has also used $60,000 from its opioid
contingency budget to purchase an infrared spectrometer, which can
identify multiple components of a drug mixture - and their quantities
- - in seconds. This means it not only detects the presence of fentanyl,
but of chemically similar drugs along with anything else that could be

VCH medical health officer Mark Lysyshyn said officials will be using
the spectrometer in combination with the test strips to ensure the
highest degree of accuracy. The device will be used alternately at
Vancouver's Insite and the Powell Street Getaway supervised-drug-use

"We see drug checking as another piece of the puzzle to address the
overdose crisis. The experts here at the table. … Certainly, lives can
be saved this way. We have lost far too many people and we have to
take every step that we can to save lives," Mr. Robertson said.

Long-time drug user and outspoken activist Dean Wilson encouraged both
drug users and drug sellers to test their supply - "so you don't sell
us your poison."

Mr. Wilson said he has wanted to see drug tests developed since B.C.'s
last overdose epidemic, in 2001, and is convinced that the initiative
will save lives.

"We don't want to die," he said. "Any knowledge that allows us to make
sure that we know what's going into our bodies is helpful."

The BCCSU will study the spectrometer's effectiveness and the
potential to expand its usage elsewhere.

Dr. Lysyshyn said VCH is looking at distributing the fentanyl testing
strips more widely, although their manufacturer does have some
reservations. In an October, 2016, interview with The Globe and Mail,
BTNX Inc. president and chief executive Iqbal Sunderani said that
while having the option to test is better than nothing, he is worried
that a drug user could misinterpret the result, or not take
appropriate precautions if the test turns up negative for fentanyl.

"It's a difficult question. It's one that is, ethically, very
difficult to answer," he said. "I personally don't think we should be
handing these out like Smarties to everybody, and giving them a false
sense of security. It should be handled with care, responsibility, by
the right professionals."

Dr. Lysyshyn said a possible solution would be to partner with an
organization such as Karmik, which offers harm reduction services at
B.C. music festivals and events.
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