Free drug-checking research project accessible by storefront and mail

“We’re interested in exploring the opportunities and benefits of different drug-checking instruments, technologies and practices,” reads the mission statement of Substance UVic. “Ultimately, we hope to better understand how drug checking can support those impacted by and responding to the overdose crisis, with attention to principles of harm reduction and social justice and the impacts of current drug policy.”

The drug-checking project was established by Dr. Dennis Hore, a Chemistry professor with the School of Science, and professor Bruce Wallace with the School of Social Work and a research scientist with the Canadian Institute of Substance Use Research. They have applied for funding and support from several community partners, developed a team of chemists, social workers, computer scientists, pharmacists, and people who use drugs to support accurate drug checking services here in Victoria and across Vancouver Island.

More than 8,500 British Columbians have died of toxic drugs since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016, making toxic drugs the most common cause of unnatural death in the province and the leading cause of death among those aged 19 to 39 in BC.

Substance UVic offers storefront service as well as the island's first-ever mail-in drug checking service to provide broader access to drug checking services throughout the region. This new approach was launched mid-December to provide communities without local facilities with potentially life-saving overdose prevention measures.

Those who have drugs they’d like tested for toxic substances can access the mail-in service through Communication is private, guarded by a unique access code assigned to each user. Drug checks are completed the same day a package is received.

Using equipment such as the paper spray mass spectrometer, Wallace and his colleagues can determine the main active ingredients and unwanted contaminants in a drug sample as small as a grain of rice, accuracy impossible using portable drug checking equipment, he said.

Substance UVic also posts a weekly report on social media showing what substances they found in the drugs they checked. “We are able to report on concentration levels including fentanyl.”

Opioids are synthetic, complex, unpredictable, says Wallace. “We take a rights-based perspective to drug knowledge in that people have a right to know what’s in the drugs they might be using.”

As for the steady dose of stigma and fear he has seen in some folks’ response to the storefront service, Wallace points out anyone can be impacted by the overdose crisis. “It’s not an inner city issue. People use as part of their home life, their private life. Even so, they still have a right to know what they’re consuming.”

Contending with a “huge interest” from UVic students is reassuring to the entire team, he adds. Chemistry, computer sciences, public health, social work, even political science students have applied for a job with the project.

“There are multiple roles we need to fill from thesis options to practicums. We are doing local engagement activities and travelling to smaller island communities in need of our service. We are literally responding to a crisis issue that’s been going on for six years. That’s why so many students want to work with this project. They want to help save lives.