WATCH: Take a look at how recreational drugs are tested

You know what’s in your drink at the bar, why not drugs?

People are going to use drugs, so why not make sure what they are using is safe.

And with rising amounts of dangerous substances funneling into the supply, the team at UBCO’s drug checking program is helping to ensure people know what’s in what they are going to use.

“You have the choice to either introduce a program like this or you have the choice to let more people die,” Lauren Airth told Kelowna10. “And to me, that’s a pretty simple choice.”

Airth is a campus health specialist, and the harm reduction team lead at the school. The service, she said, is paramount in shattering the stigma around drug use.

Students are able to come in and have their drugs tested – either for themselves or others - or to simply ask questions about substance use, often having nowhere else to turn.

“They just want accurate information about what are these kinds of drugs and how can I use them with fewer risks,” she said.

Easy, private process

Getting a test is simple, free, and confidential.

Anyone can collect a small sample of a drug, and either visit during service hours or drop it off in an envelope with a completed sample form at a collection location.

Once the team has the sample, they run it through a machine that allows a technician to determine the top three or four ingredients. After analyzing it with the equipment, the drug is dissolved in water and test strips are used to identify fentanyl or benzodiazepines (benzos).

The team shares the results with the owner and advises on the risks involved with using the substance.

“It’s just a conversation on making sure we are all using substances in a way that is going to cause us the least amount of harm,” she said.

One limitation to the program is known as the chocolate chip cookie effect. When you break off a piece of a chocolate chip cookie, it may or may not have chocolate chips. Similarly, the sample may not contain the same ingredients that are in the rest of the drug.

Changing demand

Snarls to illicit supply chains forced drug makers to switch how and where they source ingredients, she said. User demands have also changed.

Heroin was once hugely popular but was eclipsed by fentanyl. And while it continues to show up in tests – part and parcel because people are seeking it out and buying it - benzos are now infiltrating the fentanyl supply.

That’s worrying for Airth as naloxone doesn’t reverse an overdose brought on by benzos. Right now, there is no widely distributable antidote for it.

“If someone is using a substance and it has benzos in it and they don’t have a tolerance for it … then naloxone isn’t going to work on that overdose,” she said.

A trip to the hospital is all that can be done, though she still recommends people administer naloxone as it won’t do any harm.

As this trend grows, Airth said better solutions need to be found. And while the drug checking program is one answer, it does have limitations. Ultimately, she believes safe supply is the best solution at this point, as it can be better regulated.

In the meantime, the drug checking service provides a quasi-market regulation power to consumers to hold drug distributors to account for the product they are selling.

“It’s a way to have some kind of regulation,” she said.

Society needs to change how it views substance use, she explained, from an individual issue to a societal problem.

The drug checking program is just one branch of the Harm Reduction Team’s (HaRT) efforts. They also provide sterile supplies, widely distributes naloxone, offer community outreach, and provides broad-based education.

Published 2022-05-06 by Tyler Marr

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