Vancouver Coastal Health and B.C. Centre for Disease Control are collaborating on a pilot project that will provide substance users with take-home drug checking kits to determine if people can safely use them on their own.
Clients will receive five free test strips, with instructions, to take home so they can determine whether their drugs contain fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid being cut into the illicit drug supply.
“We know that most people dying from overdoses die while using alone,” said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health. .“We’re hoping that giving people the opportunity to check their drugs for fentanyl on their own could help them make safer choices and save lives.”
The VCH says fentanyl was responsible for approximately 87 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. last year.
A record 1,489 British Columbians died of suspected drug overdoses in 2018.
Currently substance users voluntarily check their drugs at overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption sites and other community health sites an average of 500 times each month. But since many fatal illicit drug overdoses occur in private residences, and when the user is alone, health authorities believe take-home drug checking kits could help more people.
“We know using drugs alone presents a significant risk amidst a toxic, unpredictable and illegal drug supply that is taking three to four lives every single day,” said Judy Darcy, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions. “Drug checking is an important tool in our toolbox and through this research project we can learn more about how to keep people safer and help them find a pathway to hope.”
The test strips were originally developed to check urine for the presence of fentanyl but in July 2016 in light of the overdose crisis, VCH pioneered the use of the strips to check the drugs themselves for fentanyl. A small amount of a drug is mixed with a few drops of water, the test strip is inserted into the solution, and a positive or negative for fentanyl is revealed within seconds.
The research study will evaluate the fentanyl positivity rates from the take-home checks compared with rates that trained technicians get at VCH sites during the same time frame. The study will help determine whether take-home drug checking kits can be effectively used outside of a healthcare facility without staff oversight.