center on substance use – Rossland News

Illicit drug screening for deadly toxins is best option to prevent fatal overdoses without a safer supply, but service should be extended to rural and remote communities in British Columbia, says screening program manager drugs under review by the BC Center for Substance Use.

Jenny Matthews said drug addicts who live in non-urban areas often cannot get their drugs tested for contaminants, including high levels of fentanyl and, increasingly, benzodiazepines, for which the overdose drug naloxone is not as effective.

“Ideally we want there to be a safer supply so people don’t have to fight for access to drug testing, but in the short term we want to try to increase access to testing” , said Matthews.

Health authorities and nonprofit groups run drug control programs in British Columbia using two technologies: take-home test strips that detect the presence of fentanyl or benzodiazepines; and a device called a spectrometer, which is operated by a technician at overdose prevention sites to look for a variety of substances. Results are available in 5-10 minutes.

Matthews said there are 12 spectrometers in the province – five in each of the Vancouver Coastal and Interior Health regions, one in each of the Fraser and Vancouver Island regions and none in Northern Health.

Data from tiny samples of controlled drugs are entered into a provincial database, which is being used by the BC Center on Substance Use to report trends on what’s in tainted drugs as part of a funded research project by Health Canada.

The centre’s latest report, released last month, says 1,180 samples were tested in communities participating in the project, and 88% came from the Vancouver coastal region. Nine percent came from Interior Health, two percent from Vancouver Island and one percent came from Fraser Health, the province’s largest.

As fentanyl became a mainstream drug in British Columbia, health authorities issued warnings about the presence of the opioid in illicit drugs that were killing so-called opioid-naive people with little or no tolerance.

Those who became addicted to fentanyl, which is 100 times stronger than heroin or morphine, needed more to avoid withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, nausea and sweating, leading to the sale larger amounts of it in other drugs.

This week, Interior Health issued an urgent drug alert about a high risk of fatal overdose of tested drugs containing up to 55% fentanyl, up from 10% previously, and 25% benzodiazepines, often prescribed to treat conditions such as ‘anxiety.

Dr. Carol Fenton, medical officer of health at Interior Health, said there were limits to checking samples to protect those at risk of overdose.

“The problem is that we don’t have a very good sample of what’s happening on the street because our drug testing data only includes people who are interested and willing to bring their drugs in and get them checked. So I imagine it’s a relatively small proportion of people using street supply,” she said.

For Matthews, drug testing awareness is crucial for users who smoke, snort and inject drugs.

“What’s really important is that when people get their drugs tested, they have conversations with a technician,” she said, adding that current pilot programs need core funding to that more technicians be trained, which would make it possible to extend the service.

“We all hope that we would never need to check drugs and that people could rely on a good supply that was safe to use.”

The coroners’ service says there were a record 2,224 suspected overdose deaths in the province last year, a 26 per cent jump from the previous year.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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