Health authorities are expanding the use of drug-testing machines in Metro Vancouver, but critics say the scale of services is not enough to quell the rising tide of overdose deaths caused by a highly toxic street-level opioid supply.
Fraser Health, which last year purchased three, $50,000 machines able to detect harmful drug substances within minutes, said it plans to put the technology to use in more areas of the region. Vancouver Coastal Health, which has at least three of the machines, said it also plans to ramp up testing.
Jerry Coustin, who accesses a drug-testing service in the Downtown Eastside, says he would like to see the program become more widely available. He only gets his opioids tested some of the time before using.
“Sometimes, I have to wait until the next day to get results. Because of long lineups, I only get my dope tested when I buy from new dealers and am scared.”
If drug testing was more widely available, the 48-year-old said he would get all of his drugs tested.
The calls for service expansion come as illicit drug toxicity became the leading cause of “unnatural death” in the province, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings and fire-related incidents combined from 2017 to 2022, according to B.C.’s chief coroner.
In an emailed statement, B.C.’s health ministry said by January, “23 per cent of overdose deaths were due to extreme fentanyl concentrations” and that benzodiazepines increasingly detected in illicit drug samples created even more risk of fatal overdose.
“Our government invests $1 million annually to health authorities for drug testing. Each health authority uses their funding in slightly different ways,” it added.
Fraser Health recently hired Jana Baller to operate the infrared-scanning machine every Wednesday at SafePoint, a supervised consumption site in Surrey. She is the authority’s first drug-checking coordinator.
“Sometimes, it’s just one batch that is contaminated with harmful substances. Other times, it’s what regularly gets into the supply,” said Baller, who uses the technology to identify potentially fatal drug compounds, including fentanyl and benzodiazepines in samples submitted.
“The testing process is anonymous. I give them a printout of their results and go over each substance identified, including how they will affect the body.”
For clients who wait on-site, Baller runs their drug samples in a priority sequence. Others who drop off samples earlier in the week are given their results within the five-hour window testing is conducted Wednesdays from noon to 5 p.m. A total of 10 tests are conducted each week.
The only other services in the Fraser Health region are at Purpose Society in New Westminster on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
In Vancouver Coastal Health, drug-checking services are conducted at two Downtown Eastside sites — an overdose prevention site operated by the Overdose Prevention Society site and at Insite, a supervised consumption site run by the PHS Community Services.
Insite clients who get their drugs tested for fentanyl prior to using the substance were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose, and those who reduced the amount they smoked or injected were 25 per cent less likely to overdose, according to a 2018 study.
Sarah Blyth, director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said she has witnessed clients lining up around the block during weekdays when technicians arrive on site.
“It’s extremely busy,” she said, calling for an expansion of services offered by the society, which currently run between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “We need longer hours and weekends. If people don’t check their drugs, they don’t know what they’re taking.”
Vancouver Coastal Health said in an emailed statement that it is “working to increase access to drug-checking services across the region,” adding that “hours of operation for drug-checking services are based on the availability of functional spectrometers, trained spectrometer technicians, as well as available funding.”
Separate from the machines operated by Vancouver Coastal Health, Dana Larsen operates his own machines at Get Your Drugs Tested, a non-profit that has provided free drug testing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since 2019. He employs technicians to run three infrared machines eight hours a day, seven days a week, providing test results for about 280 clients each week.
“Our focus is to stop overdoses and help people make more informed decisions about their drug use,” Larsen said. “I find it outrageous that provincial health authorities have purchased these expensive machines and are not using them around the clock.”
Although testing has offered health authorities insights into drugs circulating in order to issue overdose alerts, the technology does have its shortcomings, said Erin Gibson, manager of clinical operations for harm reduction and overdose response at Fraser Health.
“We’re seeing the widespread presence of substances that act on the body like benzodiazepines but are unidentifiable by this technology. These drugs contribute to overdoses that can’t be reversed the same way opioids can.”
Health authority-operated safe consumption sites also provide fentanyl test strips, which are more widely available than the drug-checking machines.
Coustin said he received results this year that indicated drugs he had purchased from a street dealer were comprised of 60 per cent fentanyl.
“Knowing what was in it allowed me to mix the drug batch with other dope, to lower the percentage of fentanyl before smoking it. If I had taken it without knowing, I would have definitely got knocked out.”