Emergency opioid overdose training kits, like the one pictured above, feature Naloxone, a medication that quickly reverses the effects of an overdose from opioids such as heroin, methadone, fentanyl and morphine. (Marcie Callewaert Photo)

Drug checking finds fentanyl, other substances in Vancouver street drugs

60 per cent of the substances tested at supervised consumption sites didn’t contain expected drug

Street drugs in Vancouver are often not as advertised, according to new data from a drug-checking program.

Initial results from the pilot project show that more than 60 per cent of the substances tested at two supervised consumption sites between November and April didn’t contain any of the drug that people had expected.

The findings were particularly stark when people brought in what they thought was heroin, with 88 per cent of those samples testing positive for the illicit opioid fentanyl, said Dr. Ken Tupper with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

“When people are buying these, particularly opioids, and they’re being told by their dealer that they’re getting heroin, they’re generally not,” he said. ”In Vancouver, it seems like the heroin supply has very much been supplanted.”

Many of the “heroin” samples were actually fentanyl cut with caffeine and a sugar substitute, Tupper said.

The BC Coroners Service has said fentanyl was detected in about 83 per cent of the over 1,400 overdose deaths last year in the province.

READ MORE: B.C. launches new drug-checking program, expands fentanyl testing

The drug-checking program was launched last November in a bid to stem the overdose rate. The centre used fentanyl test strips and a portable machine that examines small samples of illicit drugs for contaminants.

The first six months of the program saw 1,714 samples tested and the B.C. Centre on Substance Use said in a release that 61 per cent of those samples did not contain the drug the user expected.

Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine were tested 400 times, the centre said, and 89 per cent of those samples contained some of the expected drug. Five per cent of the stimulant samples tested positive for fentanyl.

The drug-checking program is anonymous, Tupper said, so researchers haven’t been able to study if people changed their behaviour because of the test results.

But he said the testing provides a kind of “consumer safety principle.”

“There’s an accountability mechanism that comes into place with drug checking between a dealer and a consumer that just doesn’t exist otherwise,” he said.

The drug-checking program is now offered at Insite in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and SafePoint, a supervised consumption site in Surrey. Plans are also in the works to provide the service in Nelson, in B.C.’s Interior starting this summer, Tupper said.

Officials are working to find a way to offer the program outside of supervised consumption sites, he added.

The B.C. coroner has said that 90 per cent of the 391 who fatally overdosed in the first three months of this year died indoors.

“We know that the population at greatest risk is people using at home alone,” Tupper said. “So we’re hoping that this type of service might attract people who do perceive some risk and they might be inclined to come and get their drugs checked.”

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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