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Drug checking expands in Vancouver

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By Carrie Stefanson

People who use drugs now have additional tools to check them for toxicity. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has partnered with PHS Community Services Society and Lookout Housing and Health Society to buy two more drug-checking machines. Drug checking is an emerging harm reduction strategy that may help prevent overdose deaths.

The new Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometers (FTIR) will rotate between supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites in Vancouver. They can test a range of substances, including opioids, stimulants and other psychoactive drugs such as MDMA. The machines work by identifying the molecular fingerprint for each drug sample.

Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR Spectrometer)

  • Detects a wide variety of compounds as well as fentanyl and fentanyl analogues;
  • Can provide information about how much of a substance is present;
  • Portable (desktop-size machine);
  • Analyzes a sample in under two minutes.

“Contaminated street drugs are taking lives every single day so we are always looking to add more innovative tools to our toolbox,” says Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “The more knowledge we have about what is contaminating the illegal drug supply the better equipped we are to stem the tide of the overdose crisis.”

“We know that drug-checking along with other harm reduction practices and programs can help people make safer choices,” says VCH Medical Health Officer Dr. Mark Lysyshyn. A recently published study by Dr. Lysyshyn and other substance-use experts found people who received a positive drug check before using drugs were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose and 25 per cent less likely to overdose.

“When people come in to check their drugs it can encourage them to use their drugs in a supervised setting so they’re not using alone and overdosing alone, says Amy Villis, director of health services, Lookout Housing and Health Society. “We know that using alone is a huge risk factor when it comes to dying of a drug overdose, and no one has ever died of an overdose at an overdose prevention site or a supervised consumption site.”


Vancouver Coastal Health currently uses two drug-checking technologies: the FTIR Spectrometer and fentanyl test strips. The test strips detect the presence of fentanyl, including some fentanyl analogues like carfentanil. The strips are more widely available than the spectrometer, but don’t give the detailed chemical makeup of a substance. Both methods provide an opportunity to connect drug users to other services and supports, and ensure they have life-saving take home naloxone kits.


Benefits of drug checking

  • Increase awareness of fentanyl and other contaminants;
  • Encourage discussion about harm reduction;
  • Track the toxicity of the drug supply.

“The new spectrometers are another asset in our arsenal of education, overdose prevention and harm reduction tools,” says Coco Culbertson, senior manager, PHS Community Services Society. “We’re looking forward to reaching out to the broader community so that drug users across the region feel welcome to check their drugs. We’re optimistic that this tool will be informative to both drug consumers in the Downtown Eastside and the broader community of drug users.”

Vancouver Coastal Health is responsible for the delivery of $3.3 billion in community, hospital and residential care to more than one million people in communities including Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, Sea to Sky corridor, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola. VCH also provides specialized care and services for people throughout BC, and is the province’s hub of health care education and research.

Carrie Stefanson is the Public Affairs Leader at Vancouver Coastal Health.



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