UBCO drug-checking program travelling the Okanagan

Drug testing program grows

UBC Okanagan’s harm reduction team is taking its drug-checking services on the road in partnership with Interior Health.

B.C. recorded a staggering 165 overdose deaths in January, translating to more than five lives lost per day. Nine of those deaths occurred in Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops.

Lauren Airth, a health specialist with UBC Okanagan’s Campus Health team, says while the service has been available since December, they want the public to know how to access drug checking opportunities in an informative and confidential manner. Drug checking is now available in Penticton, Vernon and Kelowna several times a week.

“Our goal is to provide information about what is in clients’ substances and support informed decision-making,” says Airth. “This is the same courtesy we extend to people who choose to drink; they always know the percentage of alcohol in their drink, how different drinks will affect them and the recommended limits alongside community support services when they’ve drunk too much. Everyone deserves this level of knowledge and support regarding their substance of choice.”

Last summer, the UBCO campus health harm reduction team began speaking to the community about how the pandemic has impacted people who use substances.

These dialogues uncovered that there is a significant stigma about substance use, there are insufficient resources and support, and there is a need for greater substance-use education. People noted that COVID-19 stressors were leading to an increase in substance use.

Interior Health has been expanding its drug checking programs in recent years.

Services include fentanyl test strips—through on-site testing at various community sites—as well as a take-home test kit model, benzodiazepine test strips in some community locations, and the use of Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy machines in several communities across the region. FTIR machines use infrared lights to give information about what is in somebody’s drugs such as cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), heroin or other items including fillers.

The BC Centre for Substance Use supports using an FTIR along with fentanyl and benzodiazepine test strips for drug checking, which is how UBCO operates its services. The test strips are sensitive to fentanyl and some additional fentanyl analogues, as well as benzodiazepines, and will detect them in a sample.

This is critical, since many recent overdoses that have involved fentanyl also contained benzodiazepines. This is a concerning combination, as benzodiazepines do not respond to the life-saving medication Naloxone, which typically reverses fentanyl overdoses.

Currently, drug checking is available at the UBCO campus and in downtown Kelowna every Wednesday, Vernon on Tuesdays and Penticton every Saturday until the end of March with available funding.

More info on times and locations can be found here.

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