Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, (left) pharmacist Jarred Aasen, Uvic biochemist Ian Garber, chemistry coop student Ashley Larnder and Agilent technologies representative Kelly Akers stand before the equipment that will be used in the drug checking pilot project (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

UVic partners with harm reduction groups to run a drug checking pilot project

The three-year pilot will allow people to test their drugs for fatal ingredients like fentanyl

The University of Victoria is partnering with local harm reduction organizations and the federal and provincial governments to create a drug checking pilot project.

In an announcement on Tuesday afternoon, UVic representatives said that a $1.7 million investment from Health Canada helped its chemistry and social studies departments to partner in the development of a drug checking system using specialized equipment. These tools can more efficiently test a drug sample to understand its components, and detect deadly substances like fentanyl.

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“This is a pressing issue that requires an interdisciplinary project to bring about meaningful, real life application and real life solutions,” said David Castle, vice president of research for UVic.

The project is being led by Bruce Wallace from the School of Social Work scientist from from UVic’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR), as well as UVic chemist Dennis Hore.

Previous to these devices fentanyl test strips were the only tool readily available to test drugs at harm reduction locations like STS Pharmacy. The strips were fast and simple to use, but not precise in their answers.

“Lots of what we test in heroine samples do contain fentanyl, but the strips only give a yes-no test so we have more complex technology to find out what’s in here,” said UVic chemistry coop student Ashley Larnder. “Through this we might find the sample also contains caffeine, a common cutting substance.”

ALSO READ: Victoria crowd rallies for action on overdose crisis

The devices being used include an infrared absorption spectroscopy, a Raman spectroscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometer. These devices use different techniques, including the use of light and gas, to separate components and compare it to a library database.

Each drug sample tested would run through all three devices, as some machines are better at detecting certain substances than others. In total, one sample would take about 15 minutes to test.

“Our country faces the most significant public health crisis in recent history. Over the past three years the opioid crisis has claimed the lives of 10,337 Canadians. Tragically, that number continues to rise each and every day,” said newly appointed federal Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor.

“While we can tackle substance use through treatment and harm reduction, we need new tools to tackle this issue. That’s where drug testing comes in. Drug testing allows people who use drugs to see what’s really in their drugs. It has the potential to save countless lives.”

ALSO READ: Victoria advocates demand a safe supply of opioids

Island Health was also a strong supporter of the research.

“We’re extremely excited to having something new to add to the repertoire,” said Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer with Island Health. “The drug testing is something I would put on par with naloxone kits…This will give this individual additional knowledge to perhaps make better choices or at least informed choices.”

The portable testing devices will be available at SOLID Outreach located at 1139 Yates St. and AIDS Vancouver Island at 713 Johnson St. as well as at Lantern Services, formerly known as the STS Pain Pharmacy, at 820 Cormorant St. and anyone can bring in their drugs and have them checked free of charge.

For more information, you can visit substance.uvic.ca

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com


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