Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has partnered with PHS Community Services Society to operate a spectrometer to help users test drugs in their community. 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.
“PHS Community Services Society is very pleased to have the spectrometer avail at the Molson Overdose Prevention Site as another asset in our arsenal of education, overdose prevention and harm reduction tools.” said Coco Culbertson, Senior Manager of Programs at PHS. “We’re looking forward to reaching out to the broader community so that drug users across the region feel welcome to drop in to the Molson Overdose Prevention Site to test their drugs. We’re going to work to reach out to citizens that are at risk of overdose death who may not have traditionally accessed the site.”
The spectrometer 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.
“It can detect things as long as they’re present than more than 5% of the mix. That’s why we use the spectrometer with test strips,” says Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, who is a Medical Health Officer with Vancouver Coastal Health. “This is an evolving program. We are constantly looking at new technologies and how they will work. We have to evaluate these and see how helpful they are to people.”
The new spectrometer has been at the Molson site for one day. Another machine has been at Insite for a year. Dr. Lysyshyn and his team were able to draw some conclusions from the samples gathered during the study. “If you test stimulants , there is the expected substance but if you test an opiate, there may be a different substance than what one would expect. We continue to find that drugs are heavily contaminated with Fentanyl— about 85% of substances have tested for fentanyl.”
With regards to how the device has been received in community during previous trials, the reaction to the new Spectrometer testing from Insite participants has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The most succinct (and frequent) quote from folks is ‘finally!'” said Darwin Fischer, one of the program managers at Insite. “For years site participants (and staff) had expressed a need for an accessible and rapid testing process, due to the obvious fact that the drug market in the DTES is completely unregulated and there’s no list of ingredients on paper flap sold on the corner.”
He cites unpredictability of substances as a prime example. “One participant had some ‘heroin’ tested and found that the flap actually contained only caffeine powder and diarrhea medication. The high prevalence of synthetic opiates like fentanyl in the community has led many participants liken buying drugs on the street with playing Russian Roullette.”
Since the testing has become available, Fischer reports that participants are much more likely to use smaller doses or split their dose, which lessens the risk of overdose. The results of the testing have also confirmed that it’s incredibly unsafe to use alone.
The spectrometer program also has proven as an effective point of engagement with drug users and helps to facilitate conversations about safer drug use and other relevant topics like detox, opioid substitution therapy and injectable opioid agonist treatment (IOAT).
“All in all, the availability of spectrometer drug checking in the community gives at-risk people factual information without judgment in a supportive environment,” says Fischer. “It helps create more safety for our folks.”