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Outreach workers, province looking at new way to save lives in overdose crisis

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November 09, 2017 - 4:30 PM

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

That’s why one Kamloops outreach worker wants to see new strategies to combat the province’s overdose crisis.

Government officials and outreach workers are having more conversations about how to mitigate the hundreds of deaths caused by opioid overdoses in B.C. in the past three years, including the possibility of bringing in drug-testing kits.

It’s a strategy Kamloops outreach worker Bob Hughes has been vocal about for the past year, and one he says could be saving lives. He’s sounded the alarm before about people dying alone in private homes from drug overdoses, and says drug-testing kits could help address this “hidden population.”

“Certain populations require their own tailored response to fit their needs to be effective,” Hughes says. “We just need to create a path for people to walk down that gives them the tools to protect themselves from overdosing when they are using drugs.”

Hughes says having drug-testing kits available over the counter at pharmacies would allow this population, which is not necessarily street-entrenched, to almost anonymously take preventative measures with their drug use in order to lower their risk of overdose.

“Supervised consumption is not going to be effective for a middle class, working man or woman, who’s not going to go and expose their high-risk drug use in a public setting,” he says. “We have to be able to put the tools in the hands of people that have the resources to either pay for them on their own.”

He wants to see health officials engage pharmacists in the conversation in order to hear what they have to say about having drug-testing kits available in pharmacies.

There are inherent risks that come with these kits, but Hughes says if this strategy can help mitigate overdose deaths in the province it’s something worth implementing.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he says. “The big worry is that you’re going to get a false negative and somebody’s going to go to town and still die.”

Having these kits available openly in pharmacies would help take away the stigma of drug use, Hughes says, which could be playing a big role in the many overdose deaths in private homes in the province.

“It puts it in their head that ‘I don’t have to go to a non-profit organization, I don’t have to identify myself as an outcast or a homeless drug addict. I’m going to buy my Nicorettes or whatever, and I’m also getting a drug kit because this weekend I may be using cocaine.’”

Drug testing kits aren’t a new or ground-breaking idea necessarily, they’ve already been tested and have proven successful elsewhere in the province.

A drug testing kit pilot project was conducted from July 2016 to July 2017 at the Insite supervised drug consumption site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says in an email after the project came to an end Vancouver Coastal Health expanded the service to Vancouver’s five overdose prevention sites and the Powell Street Getaway supervised injection site.

“At the provincial level, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is actively looking at how we might roll out such drug checking services more broadly,” the Ministry states. “The information being gathered by Vancouver Coastal Health with this project will assist with this work.”

The Ministry did not say whether or not it would consider bringing the drug testing kits into pharmacies.


Now that the provincial government has introduced a new ministry specifically focusing on mental health and addictions, officials are looking at different ways to mitigate the dozens of deaths we see every month across the province.

The Ministry says more than 1,400 drug checks were completed within one year at Vancouver Coastal Health’s sites and overall more than 80 per cent of drugs checked were positive for fentanyl, including 84 per cent of heroin samples and 65 per cent of drugs like methamphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine.

“With dangerous drugs like fentanyl contaminating the vast majority of street drugs, empowering people to understand what’s in the substances they use can help them make informed decisions about whether to use or how much to consume,” the Ministry says.

During this pilot project, people who checked their drugs prior to consuming, and got a positive result for fentanyl or carfentanil, were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose. Those who reduced their dose were 25 per cent less likely to overdose.

As public health officials realize, there are risks to relying on fentanyl detection strips. The Ministry says they’re not fail-safe and their limitations need to be considered with regard to how and where they are made available. For example, there’s a risk of false negatives even if a dangerous substance is present.

Hughes would like to see a pilot project locally to see how pharmacists respond to carrying drug testing kits over the counter but what’s more important, he says, is a more formalized approach where everyone can come together to get behind strategies aimed at saving people from overdoses.

“We’ve got to come up with a multi-pronged approach, because there are different populations consuming drugs that have different relationships with them,” he says. “I think that going into a pharmacy and buying things over the counter... will eliminate a lot of the fear of getting caught that I think is at the heart of this quiet population that are sadly dying because of their hidden drug consumption pattern.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ashley Legassic or call 250-319-7494 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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