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Edmonton substance users can get drugs checked at new downtown testing site

As overdoses in Edmonton reach record-high levels, users can visit a free drug-checking site that will analyze substances to determine what is in them and whether they’ve been cut with high-potency materials.

The Spectrum drug testing program, which operates Monday and Friday afternoons at 105th Street and Jasper Avenue, uses a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer to analyze stimulants, including cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, and opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

Spectrum, launched last week by the Queer and Trans Health Collective, is the first physical site in Edmonton to offer a drug-checking service. 

“We know that people are going to use substances whether we like it or not,” said Jess Murray, the collective’s harm-reduction manager, said in an interview last week.

“We just want to make sure that if they are using substances, they know what’s in the substances, they’re able to get supplies for their substances to use them more safely.” 

Murray is one of three technicians at the site who will test small samples of a drug to determine the concentration of the main drug, along with the presence of fillers like sugar, caffeine and polymers, or highly potent drugs like carfentanil or benzodiazepines. 

The site opens as the overdose crisis worsens. In July, ambulances responded to 753 overdose calls, compared to 306 responses during the same period last year.

“This service is helping to save lives,” Murray said. 

The portable FTIR spectrometer costs between $50,000 to $60,000, Murray said.

The test itself takes about 10 minutes and the team can give the results to the client in person, by phone or email.

If it’s found to be toxic and the client still intends to use it, Spectrum also offers harm reduction assistance and materials such as insulin syringes and inhaling pipes, Murray said.

“We’ll make sure that they’re stocked up and ready to go before they hit the streets.”

The program obtained a federal exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act as an urgent public health need site. 

Background in B.C. 

The Spectrum site is one of a handful of drug-checking programs in the province.

A drug-checking pilot in Calgary was started by a group called the Alberta Alliance who Educates and Advocates Responsibly, with funding from the federal government.

Another group in Edmonton, Indigo Harm Reduction, offers testing at electronic dance events. 

In the last five years, B.C.’s drug-checking program has expanded to 105 sites, of which 25 have FTIR machines. 

Drug checking has become increasingly important, according to Jennifer Matthews, who leads the program for the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use. 

“As long as we have an unregulated drug supply, we’re going to need drug checking,” Matthews said in an interview last week. “And we really need to find some stronger funding sources that are reliable so we can build out these harm reduction strategies.”

B.C.’s drug-checking programs are largely administered through community harm-reduction centres, which often include overdose prevention sites where clients can get drugs tested and also consume them on-site.

Vancouver’s well-established “Get Your Drugs Tested” site is open seven days a week, eight hours a day and is “busy all the time,” Matthews said.

“So to me, there’s a demand for this service.”

A technician at the Spectrum drug checking site on Jasper Avenue uses a spectrometer to test a drug sample.
Technicians at the Spectrum drug- checking site on Jasper Avenue uses a spectrometer to analyze drug samples, including opioids and stimulants. (Ty Ferguson/CBC)

The B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said separating people from the toxic, unpredictable illicit drug supply is an important part of preventing drug poisonings, the minister said in an email statement to CBC News. 

The Alberta government said it encourages people to stop or reduce using deadly and dangerous drugs. 

“All illicit drugs should be considered dangerous and we discourage their use at any scale,” said Hunter Baril, spokesperson for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction.

The province’s focus is on recovery and expansion of detox, treatment and recovery services. 

As part of a comprehensive response to addiction, Alberta’s government continues to fund services such as drug consumption sites and naloxone kit distribution, Baril said. 

The province did not provide information on drug-checking services in Alberta, nor whether it plans to invest in more equipment and services. 

The City of Edmonton is not involved in harm-reduction or drug checking services but one councillor believes that ought to be reconsidered. 

Coun. Erin Rutherford emphasized the need for all sectors and orders of government to do what they can to mitigate the public health emergency.

“Bottom line is that people are dying and data shows this is only increasing — anything the city can do to address this crisis, I’m all for it.”

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