Drug-checking machine offered to B.C. music festivals as summer season approaches

Health workers use an FTIR spectrometer to test drug samples. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions

With music festival season around the corner, the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) is hoping events will step up drug testing.

Dr. Kenneth Tupper says the Shambhala Festival in the Kootenays is the first to have signed up to have a Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR) on site.

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It’s the province’s most specialized public drug-testing machine, first used in B.C. — and Canada — in November.

The City of Vancouver partnered with the BCCSU to buy the FTIR machine last year for a pilot project, which has been used to check drugs at a pair of supervised consumption sites on the Downtown Eastside.

“We can provide higher quality drug checking than what they’ve done in the past,” Tupper said.

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“They have provided some limited — what’s called colourimetric testing. But we’re going to bring the FTIR spectrometer to that festival this summer.”

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Click to play video: 'Overdose prevention plan'
Overdose prevention plan

According to a December report by the BCCSU, FTIR works by shining different wavelengths of infrared light into a drug sample and measuring how much of it is absorbed. Those results help analysts to calculate how much of a given chemical compound is present in the substance.

“Due to its speed and portability, FTIR is ideally suited for onsite drug checking in high traffic situations. This technique is also far more versatile and accurate than other methods used for rapid onsite drug checking,” it said.

One potential drawback of the device is that it is unable to detect unknown compounds. The BCCSU also recommends fentanyl test strips be used concurrently with the FTIR device.

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Tupper said he’s had conversations with other event organizers, but so far received no commitments from promoters to bring the machine on site.

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“There’s always a tension for promoters about whether they’re acknowledging that illicit drug use happens at their parties,” Tupper said.

“You know, they’re not necessarily wanting to be upfront about that. I think everybody knows it’s happening but it puts them in a slightly awkward position.”

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A six-month pilot project with the spectrometer found 60 per cent of drugs tested didn’t contain what was expected.

Over the past few years, there have been hundreds of suspected overdoses at festivals across Canada, and two deaths in B.C.

Fentanyl-tainted drugs are at the root of the majority of B.C.’s overdose deaths.

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