Drug checking for fentanyl works with a test strip. A small amount of the substance being tested is mixed with water by a staff member, and a positive or negative result is revealed in minutes. (Fraser Health photo)

Drug-checking started as pilot project in Chilliwack to test for fentanyl

Substance is mixed with water on test strip, and result is revealed in minutes

A new drug-checking service is up and running in Chilliwack 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 illegal drugs at home in secret — often alone 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 the total number could be as high as 70 per cent.

“We are looking at how we can change our strategies to reach them,” Dr. Bharmal said.

Two on-site locations of the pilot project for drug-testing in Chilliwack are the Public Health Unit on Menholm Street, and in the blue bus run by Pacific Community Resources Society for harm reduction programs.

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 can provide 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 in supervised consumption sites, and this expansion is to compare the locations, and see if they are able to reach the “hidden” population in private homes.

Aside from the Chilliwack pilot site, where the new drug-checking service started on August 1, it is also on offer in Maple Ridge, Surrey and New Westminster as well.

With Fraser Health serving communities from Burnaby to Hope, they wanted to ensure the service was available the Eastern Fraser Valley area. Also some Fraser East communities, like Chilliwack, were harder hit with OD fatalities than the provincial average last year.

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 evaluate the results.

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