A new drug-checking service testing for fentanyl is being offered in four B.C. communities as a pilot project from Fraser Health to see if it can prevent fatal drug overdoses.
The target is the “hidden” population that tends to use illicit drugs at home — often alone and in secret because of the stigmatization associated with addiction.
“Of the people who are dying of overdoses, we found that many are doing so in private residences,” said Dr. Aamir Bharmal, medical health officer for Fraser Health.
They figure that total could be as high as 70 per cent of substance users.
“We are looking at how we can change our strategies to reach them,” Dr. Bharmal said.
The four communities where the pilot is underway include New Westminster, Surrey, Maple Ridge and Chilliwack.
The way it works is with a test strip. A small amount of the drug being tested is mixed with water, and a positive or negative result for fentanyl is revealed in minutes. An on-site staff member provides the results and any interpretation, safer use recommendations and sometimes a referral to other support services.
Some people consider this type of service “enabling” but there is another way to look at it.
“We are not encouraging people to do drugs,” Dr. Bharmal countered. “It is about providing information to help people make healthier choices. We recognize that there are safer ways to do things.”
Like other harm reduction services, drug-checking is a prevention tool in the Fraser Health arsenal to combat the overdose crisis. It started as a way to monitor the presence of fentanyl in supervised consumption sites, and this pilot expansion is to compare the locations, and see if they are able to reach the “hidden” population using in private homes.
The BTNX Fentanyl Test Strips only indicate a positive or negative result for the presence of fentanyl.
“That is one of the limitations,” Dr. Bharmal said.
They do not show how much fentanyl is in the sample, or if there are other substances, analogues or adulterants present.
Some who find out that their drugs are in fact contaminated will still attempt to use, but with a smaller dose. Others will throw it out to be on the safe side, the doctor said.
“We will be evaluating what they do once they find out,” he said.
The pilot project runs until Sept. 30, at which point Fraser Health will consider the results.
See more details about the program.