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Public Drug Testing Sites Are Helping Dealers Prevent Overdoses

One street-level dealer says the testing allows him to track which suppliers are cutting their product.

by Luke Ottenhof
Oct 30 2019, 3:42pm

Fentanyl test strip. Photo via Associated Press

Street-level dealers in Vancouver are accessing free drug checking services at overdose prevention sites around the city. In doing so, they’re keeping folks in their community—their clients—safe.

James*, a dealer and user who has accessed testing services at an overdose prevention site in Surrey, British Columbia for roughly a year, says that more and more street-level dealers are using the service.

“I use it every week,” he says. “As often as I can get in there and do it, I do.” James and other dealers were initially concerned about the privacy of testing services, and in his site’s case, its proximity to the police station, which is next door. “At first I was a little wary,” he says. “[My concerns] were all quashed within a month or two. Once you get to know the team there, you realize that they’re just there to help. They don’t want to know anything. They just want to be there for the safety of everybody.”

James says the testing allows him to track which suppliers are cutting their product. “If I do a test one week and it’s only half of what it was the week before, it’s gonna affect who I’m buying from, I’ll go somewhere else,” he says.

The British Columbia Centre On Substance Use (BCCSU) offers checking services at five locations in Vancouver and the surrounding area. The testing is a combination of two technologies: fentanyl test strips, which specifically detect fentanyl in samples, and the Fourier-Transform Infrared [FT-IR] Spectrometer, a portable machine that can detect components in a sample that are present above about 5 percent. BCCSU drug check technician Sam Tobias trains volunteers and workers on the FT-IR system, and performs drug checking a few days each week in Vancouver. He calls the service “point of care drug checking” that takes around 10 minutes and doesn’t damage the client’s sample.

Jaime Arredondo is working with Tobias and BCCSU on evaluating and shaping implementation of their drug checking services. Arredondo, who also works as a professor of drug policy at Mexico’s Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica, recently co-authored an academic paper which examined the role of drug dealers in reducing drug-related harms via checking their product. “We know that a couple of suppliers who are active in [Vancouver] use our services to try to keep themselves and their clients safe,” says Arredondo. However, he stresses that checking services do not totally eliminate risk. “Drug checking itself does not make your use safe, just safer. It’s just one more tool in the tool box of harm reduction.”

After clients have their drugs tested, service providers give them a handwritten results slip. But Arredondo and Tobias stress that users should get their results directly from a technician. (There have been reports of results slips being traded and sold.) While checked drugs offer a higher degree of certainty and safety, this assurance doesn’t come with an added cost, since checking services are free to all. This means supplies are safer without being financially inaccessible.

The testing combo brings a level of accountability to a community that has been harmed by tainted drug supplies. The testing is a strategy through which dealers can build trust with their customers, and opens dialogue about drug supply. BCCSU research scientist Dr. Ryan McNeil points out that sellers are members of the community, and have a vested interest in protecting their clients. Dealers, too, are changing how they operate. “We’ve talked to sellers who have been able to return drugs to their suppliers when they contain something unexpected, like fentanyl in methamphetamine,” says McNeil. “This suggests that drug-checking might have the potential to remove dangerous drugs from the illicit drug supply.”

While these checking services are totally confidential and centered on an environment of trust, Arredondo and Tobias say they do record test results and publish their health reports to help folks understand the local supply landscape. They’re also working with the drug-user community to make the information more available to folks who might not be able to reliably access the reports online.

For many in the drugs and policy communities, regulated supplies are an ideal end goal, but Arredondo says that checking services can make ground by expanding data-backed evidence of harm-reduction techniques. “Once we start making these results more widely available on a regular basis, people will start demanding more quality in their supply and push policy makers towards more sustainable solutions,” he says.

Tobias says that in one community consultation conducted by BCCSU, a community member said that “getting your drugs checked can be thought of as a bit of an activist thing to do, because by getting your drugs checked and contributing to the data that shows that in Vancouver we have a toxic drug supply, it’s more fuel to the fire that shows we are in dire need of a safe supply.”

Even with a safe supply, though, black market dealing will still occur, and Arredondo says, “If they don’t come out and test, we cannot know what is out there.”

Other communities across the world are beginning to develop similar services. A worker with the Chicago Recovery Alliance confirmed that the group is currently in the early pilot stage of a new program called Alliance for Collaborative Drug Checking - Real Time [ACDC-RT] which will bring accessible checking services to the city. Workers with Spanish harm reduction group Energy Control confirmed that multiple dealers have used their services, and in all cases have demonstrated a refusal to sell tainted drugs.

But James says the usefulness of checking services—and therefore user safety—are threatened by continued criminalization of drug users and law enforcement tactics. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where cruisers often park right outside the supervised injection site InSite, dealers are reluctant to test with cops standing at the door. The real-world effect of this is that less people access the services.

“There are a lot of people that hesitate to go in there ‘cause they do think that they’re working together,” James says. “There’s lots of [cops] pulling up out front. I just believe that the police and bylaw should stay away from it a little bit more unless they’re called in. It’s preventing the service from being used how its supposed to.”

Reporter Garth Mullins examined this relationship between Vancouver police and the Downtown Eastside community in an episode of the Crackdown podcast, ultimately revealing that the police were either unaware of or indifferent to the harm they were causing.

McNeil says this strains trust between the community and their services. “To facilitate testing, we need to ensure that sellers accessing drug-checking to test their supply won’t be subject to penalties,” he says. “It’s time to eliminate drug law enforcement from the equation so we can find ways to ensure safer drug use.”

Ultimately, the checking services and dealers’ relationship with them represent just two pieces of an overarching conversation on harm reduction. “Sellers accessing drug-checking represents one of the only ways to potentially address the illicit drug supply,” says McNeil. “But it does not replace the need to address adulterated drugs by changing how we approach drugs and ensuring that people have access to [a] safer, regulated drug supply.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.

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