What's really in that fake Oxycontin pill or rock of crack cocaine?
For street drug users, there's no way to know for certain before taking what could be a lethal dose of fentanyl or stronger substances.
A Victoria pharmacy that provides free testing of street drugs has found more than 90 per cent of the dozens of samples it has tested contain some amount of fentanyl.
Jarred Aasen, a pharmacist at the STS Pain Pharmacy in Victoria, said the current test uses a paper strip that reacts to the presence of fentanyl when it's dissolved in water.
"The main limitation is it doesn't quantify how much fentanyl's present, so it can simply tell you "yes" or "no" if it's there," Aasen said.
That information is more useful for casual drug users than for those who are already severely addicted, he said. "So, the next step would be to find a test that is quantifiable."
Forensic labs, including the RCMP, use a mass spectrometer to not only identify the drug but also tell how much drug is present.
That technology has been unavailable to pharmacies and other harm-reduction services.
But in the next couple of months, the STS Pain Pharmacy will begin testing a prototype device to identify the chemicals and their concentrations in drug samples.
Associate professor Dennis Hore of the University of Victoria chemistry department developed the compact, low-cost version of a spectrometer for drug analysis.
Hore said by turning over the prototype to the pharmacists, researchers will be able to see how it will be used outside the laboratory and help create a library of data about the chemical contents of street drugs.
Many hurdles, including legal ones, remain before such a device could become more widely available, if it is successful.
'Fingerprinting' drug contents
"Those guys encounter a lot of different samples in their work, so it will be great for them to be able to 'fingerprint' them," Hore said.
Hore said pharmacy owner Alain Vincent contacted him "out of the blue" about his interest in a device that could analyze street drugs.
They were able to receive funding to develop the device through a federal partnership program that pairs academics and industry.
Aasen said the new device could directly help many of the pharmacy's clients with addictions.
"At the individual level, the user could get some good information to see what's in it and make some informed decisions as opposed to injecting a relatively unknown substance and seeing what happens," he said.
If it eventually becomes available in other pharmacies or harm reduction services, he said, it could reveal patterns and trends through the cloud of data that is created.