A new harm reduction service is encouraging drug dealers and users to send them samples in the mail for testing.
The service is particularly aimed at rural and northern Canadian dealers and users, who may not have access to drug testing or other harm reduction resources.
The Vancouver-based organization Get Your Drugs Tested is the brainchild of Dana Larsen, a longtime cannabis activist. Larsen—alongside one other guy who operates the drug-testing machine—want to encourage users to make informed choices about what they’re consuming, or selling.
The opioid crisis continues to be a public health emergency in both Canada and the United States. Since 2016, more than 10,000 Canadians have died from opioid-related overdoses. Harm reduction advocates continue to call on the government to wake up to the crisis through grassroots movements such as heroin compassion clubs in British Columbia and protesting the Ontario government’s funding cuts toward overdose prevention sites.
So, in time for music festival season, we talked to Larsen about this new service.
VICE: Tell me about Get Your Drugs Tested.
Dana Larsen: We decided this was an important service so we saved up through my dispensary for a few months and bought one of these FT-IR machines. It’s the same kind that’s used by the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU). They offer drug testing in Vancouver as well, but they only do it Insite—so you have to go there with your substance to get it tested. While that’s a good start and more than I think any other province is doing, I still think it’s not really that accessible to typical people who maybe aren’t injection drug users and don’t want to go to an injection site. And even if you do want to go to a place like that, the vast majority of Canadians just don’t have access to that. And so I thought we’d offer by mail order and see how it goes.
Can you talk a bit more about it got started? These machines cost around $40,000, so they’re not cheap to get, but once you got one, operating it doesn’t cost anything to run a test on it—other than paying the person who operates the machine. These machines do require some training and skill, but they don’t require a PhD or any kind of specialization to operate it. I met a guy who has quite a bit of experience and training, so we hired him to be our full-time drug tester.
So right now, it’s just through the mail? Yeah. We’re going to open up a location where you can come and get things done in person and have a few other things going on in there, but that’s going to be at least a month away. The mail orders will continue after we get a fixed location. It’s such a bigger potential audience of people.
Let me ask you about legal issues. What are your concerns?
I'm not really concerned about the legalities at all. I think this is an important life-saving measure and to me, that’s more important than following rules that end up killing people. But that being said, it’s illegal for me to ask someone for drugs in the mail, it’s illegal for someone to send them to me. But we’re talking about 10-milligram amounts—extremely small dosages. In person, we’ll give it back if they want it. We’re going to destroy everything in the mail.
I do not think the Vancouver Police Department or any other police department is going to prioritize stopping me from testing drug samples when we’re in the middle of a terrible health crisis. If they do, I’m willing to deal with the repercussions of that.
What other organizations are there that provide a similar service by mail or in person?
Nobody else does it in the mail across Canada. In the world, I think there’s a group in Germany that does this kind of project—they accept samples from anywhere in the world. There are not many by-mail testers around the world other than that. In Nelson, BC, there’s a group called Ankors, and they provide drug testing at the Shambhala Music Festival every year—which I think they just started last year. They also bought a fixed location. There are a few that operate in other parts of the lower mainland, all sponsored by the BCCSU.
What’s the level of accuracy people can expect with the machine and strips? What level of responsibility do you feel if you’re telling people, ‘your drugs are safe—go ahead and use them.’
If you give us a sample by scraping some off a pill, that doesn’t necessarily mean the whole pill is exactly the same. There could be hot spots or inconsistencies in the material. We can’t guarantee the whole substance is safe. When we email them the results, we include information about what the limitations of the test are and we also tell them what the results are. So if you’ve got some para-Methoxyamphetamine in your MDMA, we include a link as to what PMA is and why you should be very careful when you’re taking it. We try to make that as informed a choice as possible. And sometimes that would be not to use it at all.
How do you feel about the notion being tossed around that “Weed is legalized, we should just accept our win”?
Cannabis legalization has always been just a piece of a much bigger project and ending the prohibition of all substances, What we call the war on drugs, I really call the war on plants. The opium poppy, the psilocybin mushroom, the cannabis flower, the peyote cactus, etc.—these are all very beneficial, culturally relevant plants, of spiritual, medicinal, and social use that goes back thousands of years. And our prohibition has changed these substances and converted them and in most cases made them much more dangerous and detached from their natural forms.
The cannabis legalization that we got is full of flaws and stigma and problems. We need to do a lot more work to get sensible cannabis laws. But we’re also in the middle of a terrible overdose crisis, which is really a prohibition crisis. This drug testing machine isn’t going to solve the fentanyl crisis. We’ve only had about 15 samples so far, so it’s still pretty new. But I’m hoping that dealers will also get their stuff tested because most dealers don’t really know what they're selling. It’s not really the solution to the overdose crisis but it is definitely the solution to a lot of death, misery, and bad trips.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
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