Free street drug testing site opens in Victoria storefront

·3 min read
Substance UVic is operating a street drug testing site at a storefront on the corner of North Park and Cook St Victoria, B.C.  (Piotr Burek/Twitter - image credit)
Substance UVic is operating a street drug testing site at a storefront on the corner of North Park and Cook St Victoria, B.C. (Piotr Burek/Twitter - image credit)

A free street drug testing site has opened in Victoria's North Park neighbourhood to provide anonymous drug testing to anyone who needs it.

The storefront is part of an innovative harm reduction approach operated by the Vancouver Island Drug Checking project, started by a group of scientists from the University of Victoria.

One of the scientists says the storefront opened Monday on the corner of North Park and Cook St. after a number of moves and closures during the pandemic.

"People can bring any sample to us and we're able to try to test that sample and give people as much information as possible," explained Bruce Wallace to On The Island host Gregor Craigie.

"We can be able to detect fentanyl and report on some of the ingredients that might be more linked to overdose, but it's also around creating a respectful, non-stigmatizing area," Wallace said.

The associate professor at the UVIC school of social work says the team uses multiple drug checking instruments to determine a sample's main active ingredients, fillers or cutting agents, any unexpected drugs and the presence of fentanyl.

Results within minutes

Simple strip tests for fentanyl and benzodiazepines can yield results within a few minutes.

Wallace says running additional tests can offer people who use drugs valuable information within a market where products like MDMA and cocaine are not regulated.

"Sometimes it's around just offering that quality of assurance that what people have or what they intend to have is what they have," he said.

"I think drug checking is one way to really address the stigma when we can actually work with the substance and talk about it and get as much information and support as possible."

The Vancouver Island Drug Checking project publishes monthly reports about the results of its testing online. The reports include information about the number of samples that test positive for fentanyl, carfentanil and benzodiazepines and what kinds of drugs they were found in.

The North Park storefront, open every weekday, benefits from a public health exemption that allows it to conduct the testing without the involvement of law enforcement.

Hub for Vancouver Island samples

Wallace says the goal is to expand the program so that the Victoria storefront can act as a hub for testing across all of Vancouver Island. He says because the technology is expensive, other overdose prevention sites in Port Alberni and Campbell River could be collection points and send samples to the hub.

"If drug checking is going to have a meaningful impact, it has to be operating at a scale that's really impactful [...] not just one site in Victoria."

He says that would require more public health exemptions so that samples could be sent to Victoria.

"Public health is really supportive of that," said Wallace. "The challenge is how to do that while also we're criminalizing drugs and people who use drugs and people who carry drugs. Because it requires that people access us."