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BC takes a bold step to save lives

By Lorraine Graves

Published 3:36 PST, Thu January 16, 2020

Last Updated: 10:16 PST, Tue January 21, 2020

While not encouraging illegal drug use, Vancouver Coastal Health does support saving lives. 

With the statistics to support it, Coastal Health now makes sensitive fentanyl-detecting test strips available so anyone contemplating using drugs purchased outside a pharmacy can check to see if they contain fentanyl. The powerful artificial opioid is responsible for many brain injuries and overdose deaths. The lethal dose of pure heroin looks like a teaspoon of powder, while a pinch of fentanyl added to anything can kill.  

Thousands of people each year die in BC from fentanyl-related overdose. In Richmond alone, dozens of people have died from confirmed fentanyl overdose. 

The problem has been that users don’t know if this drug has been added to illegal pharmaceuticals when purchased. Now, with the test strips, users can use a few grains of their supply to see if it contains this powerful compound.  

Originally intended for urine drug tests, our heath authority pioneered the use of these test strips to check street drugs for fentanyl in 2016. To use a strip, a small amount of a drug is mixed with a few drops of water, the test strip is wetted with the solution. A positive or negative result for the presence of fentanyl is revealed within seconds.

In a recent study, the strips were proven to be as sensitive as lab tests. Most participants in the study said they would use the fentanyl test kits again. 

Fentanyl is added to illegal drugs for many reasons, often because it is inexpensive to produce and it takes so little to induce effects. A grain too much of fentanyl can stop a person’s breathing. That in turn can lead to permanent brain damage from from oxygen deprivation or death. 

Richmond has been on the forefront of taking action to combat this killer of young adults. Many who die are not habitual users but rather recreational users. Most, particularly in Richmond, die in their bedroom or a hotel room alone. 

“We know most people who die from overdoses are using alone. Being able to check their drugs for fentanyl may help them make safer choices and ultimately prevent overdoses,” says Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, medical health officer for the health region. 

Lysyshyn says that there are already an average of 500 drug safety checks each month for regular users but it’s not getting everyone’s stash tested.

“We’ve been offering drug checking at community health centres, overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites but we know that not everyone can or wants to go to these sites, especially in light of the stigma that people who use drugs can face,” he says.

Just as seat belt use keeps drivers safe without condoning or encouraging reckless driving, harm reduction for those using street drugs doesn’t encourage use but rather encourages staying safe in a dangerous situation. Study after study has shown that simply preaching abstinence doesn’t stop overdose deaths. It takes a many-pronged approach of support, therapy, and harm reduction to save lives. 

“Providing people with a simple, convenient way to check if their drugs contain fentanyl may help them avoid an overdose, and reduce the number of lives lost due to the contaminated illegal drug supply on our streets," says Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions for BC.

People from Richmond will have to travel into Vancouver to get a package of five free strips. Currently, they are available through Insite, Molson overdose prevention site, Overdose Prevention Society, St. Paul’s Hospital overdose prevention site as well as through both the Three Bridges, and the Robert and Lily Lee community health centres. 

More communities and locations will be added as the program expands.

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