What’s in your drugs? Safe injection site offers users a way to test for unexpected fentanyl

Click to play video: 'Machine detects fentanyl and other drugs in less than 20 seconds'
Machine detects fentanyl and other drugs in less than 20 seconds
Users at an Ottawa safe injection site can test their drugs for fentanyl and other substances in less than 20 seconds, thanks to a device known as a portable mass spectrometer. – May 3, 2018

An Ottawa supervised injection site is offering users a new way to know exactly what’s in their street drugs.

Starting Thursday, users of the supervised injection site at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre can know within about 20 seconds whether their drugs are what they think they are, or if they contain fentanyl or the even more dangerous carfentanil.

“It gives them the choice of what they’re going to use, is it the product they wanted to use? And in the end, it’s saving lives,” said Christine Lalonde, who was on the community advisory committee for this project.

The test uses a mass spectrometer to detect what’s in a sample. A user who comes into the clinic and puts their drug in a syringe just needs to put a tiny drop into a dish.

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Then, a staff member dips a small metal rod into the liquid and inserts it into the spectrometer – a machine about the size of a computer printer.

Within 20 seconds or less, the spectrometer’s screen displays whether the sample contains heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil, methamphetamine or cocaine or some combination of these drugs.

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Then, the user can decide whether to go ahead and use the drug, whether to use less of it or dispose of it.

“We hope that people will take that information and reassess the risk associated with what it is that they’re about to do,” said Rob Boyd, director of the Oasis Program – a health program that works with street drug users – at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

“We anticipate that we’re going to see changes in behaviour based on a better understanding of the risks that they’re undertaking,” he said.

But even if the test shows that there is carfentanil in the drug, staff won’t prevent anyone from taking it.

“We would never say to somebody you cannot take this substance. It’s not our substance and it’s not our decision to make.”

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Staff want to encourage people to make their own positive choices about their drug use, he said. If they choose to use, they’re in a safe environment, he said, and they can access all the other health and addiction programs at the health centre.

Unknown supply

Because people are buying drugs on the street, in an unregulated market, they’re often not as advertised, said Boyd.

“The drug supply is toxic. We know that,” he said. “If you’re buying heroin, assume that there’s fentanyl in it.”

From his clients, he’s been hearing about many unexpected overdoses in Ottawa over the last 12 months, he said. There have been 58 overdose-related hospital visits in the city in 2018 alone. There were 2,946 opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2016, according to Health Canada.

Warnings and data

The three-year project, which the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is funding for about $500,000, will also collect data on what substances are being found and what users decide to do if they find something unexpected.

That data will help to inform whether there should be more testing facilities like this one, which is the first in Canada to use a mass spectrometer to analyze street drugs.

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Having an instant test result isn’t just helpful for the user, said Boyd, it can be helpful for the community. They will be able to instantly issue warnings about the drug supply and pass the information on to health services and to their clients.

In October 2017, Ottawa police issued an alert about carfentanil appearing in the local drug supply. That alert was based on a sample from August.

“We don’t have two months. If there’s something, a bad batch is coming through our city, we need to know,” said Lalonde.

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