The increased availability in Saskatchewan of take home drug checking strips is a step in the right direction and will prevent overdoses, says Jason Mercredi, the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon.
"The fact that they're going to be accessible for people to use at their home or at parties or music festivals … if they're planning on going out tonight at the bar, it's going to help us reduce a lot of deaths across the province," Mercredi said.
The public will now have access to the fentanyl and benzodiazepine home drug checking strips at more than 30 locations across the province.
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more toxic than other opioids.
The province said that of the 149 confirmed accidental drug toxicity deaths in Saskatchewan in 2021, 108 [72 per cent] involved fentanyl, which cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.
The tests have previously been available at the the safe consumption site in Saskatoon and the overdose prevention site in Regina, but having them available across the province is a big step forward, Mercredi said.
"We have such a unique makeup in Saskatchewan that rural gets left out," he said. "This is just another tool in the tool belt, but drug checking is a big one and the fact that it's available across the province is huge."
Marie Agioritis, the Saskatchewan lead for Moms Stop the Harm, said expanding access to the tests is a good first step.
Agioritis, who lost one son to an overdose six years ago, said everyone needs to be made aware of just how poisonous the supply of drugs is in the province, because overdoses are not confined to people with addictions.
"People will say, 'Oh, my kid doesn't [do drugs].' But let me tell you, there's a lot of kids out there that still do. And cocaine is prolific."
She said people who use drugs occsionally are unlikely to go to a safe consumption site to get these tests, so more needs to be done to get them to those people.
"We also need to get [the tests] into the festival environment," Agioritis said.
"[People] have to be allowed to go into the tent, grab some drug tests, or even somebody walking around and handing them out so that they're readily available."
She also suggests setting up a call line or email where people can request the drug testing strips, or having them available at local pharmacies.
Mercredi said there are a couple of locations in Saskatoon where you can pick up a test and be shown how to use it.
"But even if somebody didn't feel comfortable coming in, they could call. We do this with Naloxone all the time where people call in and we go to them and do the training there," he said."We definitely need to be doing a better job of educating people on the potential for overdoses."
Mixing benzodiazepines (benzos) with opioids increases the risk of overdose, because they both have sedative properties. Naloxone, which normally reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, is also not effective in counteracting benzos.
A negative result on a test strip does not guarantee the substance is safe, the province said.
"Test strips only check if certain fentanyl or benzos compounds are present in the portion of the drugs tested. They do not detect other drugs and do not show the amount of fentanyl or benzos present in the substance. These strips are an additional tool to limit potential overdoses," said a news release.
"Even if you think you're just using Xanax or something like that, you should still be checking your drugs and carrying naloxone," Mercredi said.
To find the closest location for pick-up, the public can visit saskatchewan.ca/overdose.