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Victoria drug checking project begins weekly training sessions

Researchers hope to expand people’s ability to check their street drugs, as the toxic drug supply continues to take more lives in BC

By Brishti Basu
November 18, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria drug checking project begins weekly training sessions

Researchers hope to expand people’s ability to check their street drugs, as the toxic drug supply continues to take more lives in BC

By Brishti Basu
Nov 18, 2022
Lea Gozdzialski, a chemistry PhD candidate at UVic and the researcher who started the new “Teaching Thursdays” initiative. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Lea Gozdzialski, a chemistry PhD candidate at UVic and the researcher who started the new “Teaching Thursdays” initiative. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria drug checking project begins weekly training sessions

Researchers hope to expand people’s ability to check their street drugs, as the toxic drug supply continues to take more lives in BC

By Brishti Basu
November 18, 2022
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Victoria drug checking project begins weekly training sessions
Lea Gozdzialski, a chemistry PhD candidate at UVic and the researcher who started the new “Teaching Thursdays” initiative. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

After four years of testing people’s drugs to give them an understanding of what it contains, amid an increasingly toxic street supply, researchers at Victoria’s drug checking project are taking their clients behind the scenes. 

The Substance Drug Checking site on Cook Street will host teaching sessions every Thursday, starting this week, showing people how to use an FTIR, or an infrared spectrometer, to determine what their drugs contain—whether it’s fentanyl, benzodiazepines, or something else. 

The toxic drug poisoning crisis has only gotten worse since 2016 when it was first declared a public health emergency in BC, with the death rate more than doubling to 42.2 per 100,000 since then. The increasingly toxic street supply has already killed 1,644 British Columbians as of Sept. 30 this year. 

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Substance users, and other harm reduction advocates, a safe, prescribed supply of untainted street drugs is sorely needed to curb the crisis. SaferVic, a small, federally funded initiative, is the only place in Victoria that offers a limited supply of untainted fentanyl and prescription pharmaceutical alternatives. 

“I had recently attended a harm reduction conference, and one of the big takeaways was ways to engage [with the] community more,” said Lea Gozdzialski, a chemistry PhD candidate at UVic and the researcher who started the group’s new “Teaching Thursdays” initiative.

Gozdzialski began working with Substance as a drug checking technician three and a half years ago, setting up at safe consumption sites a few times a week. “Recently, I have taken more of a research role, just because I do have to finish my PhD…but I was really missing being engaged, so I thought this was something I could start,” she said.

The impetus to start the project came from clients who regularly asked questions about how drug checking is conducted. Now, those who wish to learn can drop by on Thursdays, bring their own drugs to check, and spend 20 minutes with Gozdzialski showing them the ropes. 

An FTIR, Gozdzialski explained, is a portable machine, unlike the mass spectrometer that is also used at the main drug checking site. Unlike the bigger system, an FTIR will not detect an exact breakdown by percentage of substances contained within each test sample but is still an important tool to determine whether, for example, a sample of cocaine also contains fentanyl or benzodiazepines.

“You look at the regulated alcohol supply and people know exactly what they're getting,” Gozdzialski said. “With other drugs, people have no idea, people are dying, and drug checking gives some sort of quality assurance.”

Expanding access to drug checking

Gozdzialski hopes that more training and knowledge will lead to an eventual expansion of the drug checking program with more supervised consumption sites acquiring their own FTIRs. 

The portable FTIR machine that clients will be taught to use by the Gozdzialski costs anywhere between $30,000 to $100,000. That one-time cost, however, is offset by its simplicity of use.

“Let's say it was a powder sample of cocaine, for example,” Gozdzialski said. “The first thing you would do is probably a test strip.” That entails dissolving a sample of the cocaine in water, then dipping the test strip in, and finally putting the strip in the machine. 

The machine, plugged into a software designed by the researchers at the program, then checks the test sample against a library of other substances to see whether it matches the profiles of any other known drugs. 

“It’s all so straightforward,” she said.

Currently, the Substance Drug Checking project is the only facility in Victoria that has an FTIR machine and the capacity to cross-check the samples against a drug library. Around May 2022, the project expanded FTIR access to four other safe consumption sites further up Vancouver Island. 

Staff from Substance travelled to these facilities in Port Alberni, Comox Valley, and Campbell River to train staff how to use the spectrometers over several days. In Victoria, Gozdzialski says the main reason why drug checking is not available at supervised consumption sites is because of a lack of staff resources and training. 

“Currently, a lot of the barriers to the [FTIRs at consumption sites], what I hear around is, ‘We can get the funding for the instrument, but how could we possibly have the capacity to go through intense training, to run the service on top of all the other responsibilities?’” Gozdzialski said.

She hopes to reduce some of those barriers by starting to provide that training to substance users themselves.

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