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UBC Okanagan drug-checking program aims to save lives during overdose crisis

Click to play video: 'UBC Okanagan offering drug testing services' UBC Okanagan offering drug testing services
WATCH: A partnership between Interior Health and UBC Okanagan is expanding access to drug checking in the valley. The program is aimed at saving lives during the overdose crisis and it is already flagging a concerning trend in the local drug supply – Mar 4, 2021

A partnership between Interior Health and UBC Okanagan is expanding access to drug checking in the Okanagan Valley.

The program is aimed at saving lives during the overdose crisis and is already flagging a dangerous trend in the local drug supply.

Since December the UBC Okanagan drug testing technicians have been doing testing both on-campus and in the community.

Read more: B.C. reports record number of illicit drug overdoses in 2020

“On-campus we know that students use drugs, just because you go to university doesn’t mean you are not,” said UBCO campus health specialist Lauren Airth.

“We wanted to provide a way for students to get some information about what is in their drugs to make more informed choices about how they are using those substances.”

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During the community testing timeslots, anyone can bring in or drop off street drugs to find out what might be cut into them.

“If someone has an answer as to what is possibly found in the rest of that drug that they are going to use they can plan for using a lower dose, maybe making sure that they are around friends at that time,” Airth said.

Click to play video: 'Kelowna frontline RCMP officers dealing with increasing number of overdose calls' Kelowna frontline RCMP officers dealing with increasing number of overdose calls
Kelowna frontline RCMP officers dealing with increasing number of overdose calls – Mar 2, 2021

The program is expanding access to advanced drug testing in the Okanagan which is expected to provide more information for the community about what’s circulating in the local drug supply.

“In the Interior, drug supplies are likely to be very different depending on whether you are in Vernon or Kelowna or Penticton so the UBCO drug checking project will collect important information for people who use drugs in those communities,” said Sam Tobias a senior drug checking technician at the BC Centre on Substance Use.

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Typically it’s fentanyl, meth, and cocaine that are brought in for testing.

Sugar and caffeine are the more common fillers, but testers are also seeing a more dangerous trend.

“In the past month almost every sample of fentanyl we’ve seen has been cut with benzodiazepines,” Airth said.

“The danger with that is that fentanyl and benzos are both going to have sort of a sedative effect on someone and so that will slow down their breathing and their heart rate and it really increases their risk of overdose.”

Read more: B.C. records January’s largest ever total for lives lost due to illicit drugs

When that mix is present, naloxone also won’t reverse an overdose — a problem being seen around B.C.

“We’ve seen this reflected in the coroner’s data for the past few months. Specifically, in January almost 50 per cent of people who died of drug overdoses had benzodiazepines in their system,” Tobias said.

Click to play video: 'January was deadliest month yet in B.C. overdose crisis' January was deadliest month yet in B.C. overdose crisis
January was deadliest month yet in B.C. overdose crisis – Mar 2, 2021

The hope is that giving people more information about their drugs will help prevent deaths.

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“We know that from the information we are giving to people it’s already been preventing a number of overdoses because they plan to use the substance differently,” Airth said.

The program has funding to run through the end of March but with the overdose crisis not letting up those involved are hoping to continue and even expand the service.

Details about the drug testing schedule and testing locations in Vernon, Kelowna and Penticton are available here.

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