Edmonton considering drug checking program to prevent overdoses

·2 min read
Clients use a test strip to dilute their substance with a few drops of water and, within seconds, a positive or negative result for fentanyl appears. (Vancouver Coastal Health - image credit)
Clients use a test strip to dilute their substance with a few drops of water and, within seconds, a positive or negative result for fentanyl appears. (Vancouver Coastal Health - image credit)

Edmonton could develop a drug-screening program for toxic substances but it won't be a swift fix to the ongoing opioid crisis, the city outlined in a report this week.

Drug checking services are one potential option to address accidental drug poisonings in Edmonton, the report says.

"The complexity of this issue signals that significant further exploration and engagement would be required in order to bring forward options or a proposal," the report says.

At a meeting in April, city council directed city staff to collaborate with social agencies and Alberta Health Services and report back with options for drug checking programs.

Coun. Erin Rutherford had raised the idea in a motion.

A few months earlier, drug poisoning deaths in Alberta had hit a record high.

Rutherford suggested drug checking is a proven, effective and inexpensive way to try to filter out toxic substances.

"In a confidential and safe way, people can bring in drugs, have them assessed to make sure they're not contaminated with opioids, and prevent that."

Other jurisdictions across Canada have robust programs, Rutherford noted.

"I think it's time we start to explore that."

The report says the city would need to further engage social agencies and affected people and complete in-depth analysis to understand programs in other jurisdictions.

Drug-checking aims to detect substances for impurities, like fentanyl, Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and ketamine, the report says.

Calgary approved a drug-checking pilot earlier this year, with an 18-month grant from Health Canada.

The Alberta Alliance Who Educates and Advocates Responsibly (AAWEAR) is planning to pilot a mobile drug-checking unit.

Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal and Toronto also have drug-checking programs.

British Columbia has two free services: Get Your Drugs Tested and the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project.

A psychoactive substances committee, convened by Edmonton police, has talked about getting a mass spectrometer to provide drug-checking services

Members on that committee include community agencies and partners, Alberta Health Services, Emergency Medical Services, and the University of Alberta.

Various models 

Drug checking is done in a number of ways:

  • On-site at an event as a temporary pop-up service, most common at music festivals and concerts.

  • Fixed-site in the community, ideally in a larger organization that offers counselling, harm reduction supplies, naloxone training, housing support or opioid replacement services

  • Mobile overdose prevention sites or harm reduction vans

  • Off-site where samples are collected in a community then couriered off to a central drug-checking site (like a hospital) where they are analyzed then communicated back to the community

In Edmonton last year, almost 50 per cent of accidental opioid poisoning deaths occurred in privately owned residences where the deceased lived permanently, according to Alberta Health data.

Around 20 per cent of deaths occurred in a public, non-secure location.

Council's executive committee is scheduled to review the drug-checking program report at a meeting Sept. 9.