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Over 90 per cent of street drugs tainted with fentanyl

Jarred Aasen, a pharmacist at the STS Pain Pharmacy in Victoria, demonstrates how he tests drug samples for fentanyl.  - Pamela Roth/Victoria News
Jarred Aasen, a pharmacist at the STS Pain Pharmacy in Victoria, demonstrates how he tests drug samples for fentanyl.
— image credit: Pamela Roth/Victoria News

For the past seven months, Alain Vincent has spent many days testing street drugs for the presence of fentanyl and what’she’s discovered thus far is alarming.

More than 90 per cent of the cocaine, heroin and crystal meth samples his pharmacy has tested contain some amount offentanyl. But now Vincent, the owner of STS Pain Pharmacy on Cormorant Street, which specializes in addiction treatment,doesn’t just want to know whether fentanyl is present in street drugs, he wants to know how much is there.

“We immediately realized that this is information that’s very valuable in terms of what’s going on in the streets… and itsrelevance in terms of health care,” said Vincent, noting most of his clients are in treatment and concerned about whatthey’re using when they do dabble with drugs.

“I was very surprised to find that the meth that’s on the street was highly tainted with fentanyl…the fact that they would putfentanyl in those substances, it shows us there’s a very different trend in the market.”

Due to legal implications, the information the pharmacy collects from the tests doesn’t directly tell users whether theirprivate drug stash contains fentanyl, but is instead being used for a project being conducted with the University of Victoriathat looks at the bigger picture.

The method currently being used at the pharmacy to identify fentanyl is like a pregnancy test, explained Vincent. A smallquantity of the drug is put into a test tube with a paper strip then placed inside. If there’s one red bar on the strip, thatmeans fentanyl is present.

Dennis Hore, associate professor of the university’s chemistry department, has been working with the pharmacy to developa prototype infrared device that will provide more information about what else might be in the drugs and the amount offentanyl in them.

According to Hore, drug testing kits are nothing new and there are many similar devices already on the market being usedat airports and big government labs.

But the technology hasn’t been available to pharmacies and other harm-reduction services.

With the prototype device, which is about the size of two pieces of standard letter paper, Hore said researchers at theuniversity and pharmacy will be able to get a fingerprint on everything that’s in a drug sample, providing a library of dataabout the chemical contents of drugs on the street. The prototype should be ready to hand over to the pharmacy in about amonth.

“I think once they get it, it’s going to be a real eye opener,” said Hore, noting the project is very much exploratory at thisstage. “I feel something like this could really have a big impact. It’s important to have a go at it and see whether somethinguseful can come out of it.”

In October, a Winnipeg pharmacy started selling $5 kits for fentanyl testing, but the College of Pharmacists of Manitobaquickly stepped in and asked them to stop over concerns about the accuracy of the tests, which had not been approved fortesting in water by Health Canada (as recommended by the pharmacy.)

Insite, the legal and supervised drug injection site run by Vancouver Coastal Health, has been using the test kit since July aspart of a pilot project. During the first month of the pilot, 86 per cent of the drugs tested positive for fentanyl.

As for developing a fentanyl test kit for commercial use in Victoria, Vincent said that would have huge legal implications.But as the amount of addictions and overdoses continue to rise, he believes drug users should know what they’re using.

“Fentanyl is just one element on the surface. It will be gone one day and something else will come up,” said Vincent. “Peoplewill use drugs no matter what so they just have to be informed and have the means to test what they use.”

Police started noticing the highly addictive opioid (that’s often mixed with other drugs) creep into the city’s drug culture in2012, but now officers are seeing it in small amounts on a daily basis. Fentanyl is 20 times more potent than OxyContin.Even one dose can be fatal.

 

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