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Home drug testing not a simple solution in opioid overdose fight

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November 09, 2017 - 6:30 PM

If fentanyl-laced drugs are killing people, a simple solution would be to offer a cheap way to test their dope, especially when people are using alone.

Turns out it’s not quite that simple, medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema says, for the simple reason there are multiple ways to test drugs, not all of them accurate and some of them quite expensive.

“Different drugs are tested by different machines with different technology, different tests have pros and cons. Some are good with cocaine, some with fentanyl but no single test can tell you about all drugs,” she says.

Mema is a medical health officer with the Interior Health Authority who is part of a provincial working group looking at drug testing and all the options available.

With fentanyl the focus of the provincial opioid emergency, Mema says the group has settled on a test strip, normally used post-consumption as an urine test, but which the manufacturer has said can be repurposed for pre-consumption fentanyl testing.

The strips are now available at supervised drug consumption sites but have not been distributed more widely, Mema says, in part because they are not considered accurate enough at this point to guarantee detection.

“The bottom line is we cannot trust the test,” she adds. “We don’t want to falsely reassure people there is not going to be contamination.”

Mema is well aware of the limitations that presents given the opioid epidemic is largely affecting less traditional drug using populations who are more likely to use drugs when they are alone.

“That’s what I’ve been saying at the meetings,” Mema adds. “They are not dying at supervised consumption sites."

As well, Mema says the health authority wants to use personal drug testing as another contact point with the aim to get a person into treatment or using replacement therapy.

“We don’t want people testing alone,” she says. “The whole point is to stop them from using alone."

Mema says the health authority would like to see the test strips made more widely available through local social service agencies but such a move — if done legally — will require a section 56 exemption from the federal government, similar to a safe injection site.

“These are desperate times. We might start seeing this soon,” she says. “We’re hoping this tool becomes more widely used but we need to be mindful of the limitations."

Some street outreach workers would like to see the drug-testing kits available over the counter at pharmacies, arguing it would allow people who take drugs at home alone to almost anonymously take preventative measures in order to lower their risk of overdose.

To contact a reporter for this story, email John McDonald or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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