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UVic researchers hope to boost drug-checking access through automation

Automated services would alleviate need for technicians, increase access in small communities
A technician with the Substance Drug Checking project uses an infrared spectrometer to test drug samples. Researchers hope the technology could help the shift to automated services. (Courtesy of Jay Wallace)

University of Victoria researchers are looking to enhance the role of technology in drug checking so more people in communities big and small can access the service as the illicit market’s toxicity continues to claim lives.

There’s plenty of interest in drug checking, but the practise requires a technician with a chemistry background and training in drug checking to properly analyze what’s in a provided sample.

That’s why Bruce Wallace, co-lead of the Substance Drug Checking project, along with chemists and other substance-use researchers from UVic have published a new paper exploring the shift to automated drug checking.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to scale up drug checking by basically removing that need for a skilled technician,” Wallace said. “Being able to develop these (automated) technologies is one way to get drug checking in the hands of both harm reductionists and people who use drugs.”

Substance’s Cook Street location in Victoria is extremely busy six days a week, but Wallace noted that offers little immediate help to people in places like Campbell River or Port Alberni. Smaller communities like those may not have the resources for brick-and-mortar drug-checking locations with full-time staff.

Automation would also help urban areas as Wallace said it could bring greater access to drug checking in strategic locations where harm reduction is needed, such as supportive housing or overdose prevention sites.

The paper pointed to previous studies which found speed and accuracy are among the factors affecting the willingness of the people who use drugs to engage in checking services. The recently published research said automation has the potential to speed up spectral analysis, alleviate the requirement of an experienced technician and can offer a greater degree of consistency, accuracy and precision in results.

The two-year study ended last November and looked at the use of infrared spectrometers – a portable and lower-cost option than the mass spectrometers that detect trace levels of substances – at the Victoria site.

Wallace said the thousands of samples Substance has checked to date will inform the shift to automated analysis. The researchers are currently developing the needed software and are looking into the opportunities artificial intelligence presents.

While he notes they’re at the forefront by pushing automated checking, Wallace said they’re moving forward incrementally to ensure there’s trust in the technology and for drug users accessing the service. Focusing the service at sites where users already have a relationship with harm reduction workers will also help the level of trust, he said.

Drug checking helps get vital information to a person using substances, but also allows groups like Substance to provide reports on community-wide drug trends so people can know what’s in the local market, Wallace said. He added that people are likely well aware fentanyl is strongly linked to the extreme rates of overdose since a public health emergency was declared in B.C. over the issue.

“But what we’re seeing is those illicit opioids are extremely complex and they often have multiple highly potent substances within a sample.”

There were 814 deaths due to unregulated drugs in B.C. through the first four months of 2023 and more than 12,000 lives have been lost in the last seven years.

READ: 814 people died from toxic drugs in the first 4 months of 2023: BC Coroners Service

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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