A Sudbury, Ont., harm reduction advocate has started collecting street drug samples so they can be tested at a Vancouver lab to help protect drug users from overdoses, and she's already learning some aren't as advertised.
Marie Pollock is co-founder of the Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention Society, which offers peer support and outreach based on her lived experience with drugs.
In April, she started to send drug samples to Vancouver-based Get Your Drugs Tested, which has two spectrometers and tests drugs from across Canada.
In 2021, Greater Sudbury Paramedic Services responded to 896 suspected opioid-related incidents, according to the city's health unit. The most recent numbers from Ontario's coroner show 100 people died of drug overdoses or suspected overdoses in Public Health Sudbury and Districts last year.
"It's very dangerous out there with this toxic supply," Pollock said. "We need safe supplies."
Get Your Drugs Tested is a privately funded organization operated by the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary. It doesn't charge for testing but accepts donations.
So far, the Vancouver lab has found issues with some of the samples Pollock sent for analysis.
For example, some samples sold as down (a mixture of heroin and fentanyl) contained psychoactive drugs called benzodiazepines and a synthetic sweetener as a filler.
Pollock said drug users want to know what they're taking and her efforts could save lives by giving them that information.
Allen Custance, site manager with Get Your Drugs Tested, said the facility receives samples from across Canada and performs 50 to 60 tests per day.
"At this point we've got two machines running eight hours a day."
One machine is dedicated to local samples from Vancouver and the other is for those delivered from across Canada. Custance said it may be the busiest facility of its kind in the world.
"A lot of people tell us we're saving lives, you know, especially if you're using something like fentanyl," he said.
"Drug checking services are kind of the only information you have about the dose of your substance."
Get Your Drugs Tested, which works closely with Vancouver Coastal Health, is one of only two facilities in Canada that accept mail-in samples.
A lot of people tell us we're saving lives ... especially if you're using something like fentanyl. - Allen Custance, site manager, Get Your Drugs Tested
The Sudbury Action Centre for Youth, an organization that offers a number of services, including harm reduction, is helping cover postage for people who want to send their drug samples to Get Your Drugs Tested.
Karissa Cantin, the centre's program co-ordinator for harm reduction, said they supply pre-paid envelopes to clients so they can send them in for testing.
Cantin said they started to offer the service in October. In addition, she said, the centre offers fentanyl testing strips that can detect whether a sample contains fentanyl.
Cantin said the strips are more limited since they're only designed to detect one type of drug and won't give a detailed breakdown on the dose. But the results are immediate.
For samples sent to Vancouver, it can take up to two weeks to get results back.
Harm reduction alternatives
Heidi Eisenhauer, executive director of Reseau Access Network in Sudbury, a non-profit organization dedicated to harm reduction, said sending samples to other parts of the country is rarely practical, nor is opening a drug checking lab locally.
"When someone is thinking about partaking or using a substance, normally they're not thinking about waiting a couple of weeks for the results," she said. "So in the long run, it's not really an option."
Reseau Access Network plans to open an overdose prevention site and will offer the more limited fentanyl strip testing. But Eisenhauer said mass spectrometers are expensive for smaller communities and organizations to purchase.
Dr. David Marsh, associate dean of research, innovation and international relations at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and an addictions specialist, agreed a spectrometer would not be practical in Sudbury.
"To be honest, even the hospital here in Sudbury is not able to do that level of testing on samples when people come into the emergency room with an overdose."
Marsh said supervised injection sites, with prescribed drugs, are the gold standard in many European countries to help prevent overdose deaths.
"So a person who's injecting, or snorting or smoking fentanyl would be able to come to a clinic and have a doctor prescribe the medication that they need, and they would be able to inject it under supervision at a known dose."
Marsh said some provinces, such as British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick, have started to adopt that model, but it has not yet been used in Ontario.