Advocate calls for drug testing site after 'unknown substance' leads to overdose deaths

·4 min read
Matt Bonn is co-founder of HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society. (Nicola Seguin/CBC - image credit)
Matt Bonn is co-founder of HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society. (Nicola Seguin/CBC - image credit)

Before Matt Bonn uses drugs, he mails them from the Halifax area to a Vancouver organization to find out if they're safe and unlaced, because there is no such harm-reduction service on the East Coast.

Bonn is the program co-ordinator for the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, and the co-founder of HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society.

Last week, Bonn received an email from Nova Scotia's health authority stating there is an "unknown substance" circulating in the Halifax region that may be sold on squares of blotter paper and has led to "a number of overdoses" and two deaths between July 4-15.

Bonn said these overdoses could have been mitigated if there were drug testing sites in the city.

"I think any time there's alternative harm-reduction measures implemented it reduces the chances of overdose deaths," Bonn said. "We do have a safe consumption site, and I think that would be the perfect place to test drugs."

The information about the mystery drug was released to the public on social media on July 15, but does not currently appear on the Nova Scotia Health website. Bonn said usually drug advisories are highly detailed documents that include the name of the substance and photos. This advisory was bare bones.

"There's a lot up in the air," Bonn said. "We have no idea what this substance even is ... and I think there's a lot of hysteria around it right now."

Little information

A health authority spokesperson told CBC News no further information was available about the alert sent out.

CBC News also contacted Halifax Regional Police about the two deaths. Police said in an email they have "no updates on the sudden death," and "have not seized any substance as described in the Nova Scotia Health alert."

Bonn said drug advisories are sent to him because he is on Nova Scotia's drug harms alert distribution list, a list of community-based organizations and health services that provide front-line services to people who use drugs.

He believes many people who are not on the email list could benefit from being educated about the potential of a dangerous substance, and said the information should be released to schools and other organizations in the city.

Even though Bonn works in outreach with people who use drugs and sometimes responds to overdoses, no additional information about the substance was communicated to him. He said better communication between police, Public Health, community-based organizations and the public is necessary.

"There's still such a huge stigma and discrimination toward people who use drugs that misinformation is shared and lack of education is [a problem]," Bonn said.

Always carry naloxone

Bonn said there are many ways people can use drugs more safely, like using with people they trust, testing their drugs and carrying naloxone.

Naloxone is a medication that is injected to block the effects of opioids and counteract an opioid overdose. It is available for free at many pharmacies across the province, as part of the take-home program that began in 2017.

Bonn said though it's not clear what the mystery substance actually is, naloxone should be used in any instance where an overdose may be occurring. It will work on opioid overdoses and will not harm a person if they haven't taken an opioid.

Greg Richard, the pharmacy manager and owner of Boyd's Pharmasave on Agricola Street in Halifax, gives free kits and a 20-minute training session to anyone who thinks they might need naloxone.

Nicola Seguin/CBC
Nicola Seguin/CBC

"I think a big misconception is that you only need a naloxone kit for somebody who is actively using opioids," said Richard. "But the truth is we've seen a lot of opioid overdoses in folks using other types of medications or drugs such as cocaine, acid, other amphetamines."

Richard pointed to the fact that street drugs are often laced, and the buyer or seller may not be aware.

"Opioids can be found in a lot of illicit drugs and there's no real way of knowing."

This is why Bonn said it is crucial to have test sites readily accessible.

Nicola Seguin/CBC
Nicola Seguin/CBC

Drug testing kits can be purchased online, but the price can be a deterrent, as well as the wait time. Bonn said fentanyl test strips can also be purchased with government funds, but this type of test doesn't give enough information about what may be in a certain drug.

He said a full mass spectrometer system is required. Mass spectrometry is the current gold standard of forensic drug testing and analyzes to the molecular level.

Bonn said the Vancouver-based organization Get Your Drugs Tested is the best option for now, but sending a drug across the country is inconvenient.

The organization uses a mass spectrometer to test drugs mailed in from anywhere in Canada. It is sponsored by the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, and Bonn said he has been speaking with a cannabis dispensary in Halifax about the potential of starting a similar organization.

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