While street drug testing is new to Saskatchewan, in B.C. it's helped prevent overdoses for years
SASKATOON -- On Tuesday the provincial government announced it would be funding drug testing strips to detect two potentially deadly substances sometimes found in street drugs.
While the drug testing strips are new to Saskatchewan, other jurisdictions such as B.C. have incorporated them into their harm reduction strategies for years.
Medical health officer Dr. Mark Lysyshyn with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) says the authority looked into drug testing strips in 2016 and felt if people could identify contaminants, people might make different decisions about how and where they use drugs.
“We first looked at this at (supervised drug use centre) Insite because it was sort of a controlled environment where we could see people using the strips, we could see what they did with the result and then we could see if they overdosed,” Lysyshyn told CTV News.
Lysyshyn says people were willing to use them and when drugs tested positive for fentanyl, they were more likely to reduce their dose to try and avoid an overdose.
“Are they gonna take a smaller dose? Are they gonna use it more slowly? Maybe they’re going to tell somebody that they’re gonna use, maybe they’ll leave their door open,” Lysyshyn said.
The testing strips now available in Saskatchewan's two largest cities can detect the presence of fentanyl and benzodiazepine.
Of Saskatchewan's 73 confirmed opioid-related deaths in 2021, 66 per cent involved fentanyl which is 50-100 times more toxic than other opioids, the province said when announcing the rollout of the testing strips.
After the interest from users, VCH incorporated other drug testing methods into their program such as spectrometers, however, they require trained staff to use them.
“The strips are great for that because almost anybody can be trained on how to use them so the strips get used at our sites whenever anyone wants to check their drugs and a technician is not there,” Lysyshyn said.
Jenny Matthews with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use emphasizes there are limitations when it comes to all drug checking technology but that it’s important there are some tools out in the community regardless.
“Until we have safer supply, people need to have ways of finding out more about what they’re using so that they can make choices about how they’re going to use their drugs,” Matthews said.
Matthews says a limitation of the strips is that they don’t reveal how much fentanyl is present and don't pick up other adulterants that may be harmful.
The strips offered in Saskatchewan are not yet available for testing at home.
People using drugs can access the strips at Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon and Newo Yotina Friendship Centre in Regina.