New enhanced service available in several Okanagan communities
UBC Okanagan’s Harm Reduction Team, in partnership with Interior Health, is taking its confidential drug-checking service to communities across the region in an effort to save lives.
Lauren Airth, a health specialist with UBC Okanagan’s Campus Health team, says while the service has been available since December, they want the public to know how to access drug checking opportunities in an informative and confidential manner. Drug checking is now available in Penticton, Vernon and Kelowna several times a week.
“Our goal is to provide information about what is in clients’ substances and support informed decision-making,” says Airth. “This is the same courtesy we extend to people who choose to drink; they always know the percentage of alcohol in their drink, how different drinks will affect them and the recommended limits alongside community support services when they’ve drunk too much. Everyone deserves this level of knowledge and support regarding their substance of choice.”
Airth notes that, in April 2016, BC’s Public Health Officer Bonnie Henry declared a state of emergency in response to the increasing rate of drug overdoses. While there were a number of successful harm reduction campaigns, Airth says 2020 proved to be the province’s deadliest year for illicit drug toxicity deaths. Last year, there were a total of 1,716 reported deaths, averaging 4.7 fatal overdoses per day—a 74 per cent increase from 2019.
“This number is staggering,” says Airth. “Every day our community members are losing their lives to a crisis that has only accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Every step we can take to help them is an important step that may save lives.”
Last summer, the Campus Health Harm Reduction Team began holding open dialogues with the UBCO community and Kelowna community partners to find out how their substance use had been impacted by the pandemic. Along with substance use, participants also discussed how the opioid crisis, racism and COVID-19 were affecting people. These dialogues uncovered that there is a significant stigma about substance use, there are insufficient resources and support, and there is a need for greater substance use education. People noted that COVID-19 stressors were leading to an increase in substance use.
Interior Health has been expanding access to drug-checking modalities in communities across the region over the past several years. Services include fentanyl test strips—through on-site testing at various community sites—as well as a take-home test kit model, benzodiazepine test strips in some community locations, and the use of Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy machines in several communities across the region. FTIR machines use infrared lights to give information about what is in somebody’s drugs such as cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), heroin or other items including fillers.
The BC Centre for Substance Use supports using an FTIR along with fentanyl and benzodiazepine test strips for drug checking, which is how UBCO operates its services. The test strips are sensitive to fentanyl and some additional fentanyl analogues, as well as benzodiazepines, and will detect them in a sample. This is critical, says Airth, since many recent overdoses that have involved fentanyl also contained benzodiazepines. This is a concerning combination, as benzodiazepines do not respond to the life-saving medication Naloxone, which typically reverses fentanyl overdoses.
Currently, drug checking is available at the UBCO campus and in downtown Kelowna every Wednesday, Vernon on Tuesdays and Penticton every Saturday until the end of March with available funding.
“Drug-checking services are offered alongside counselling where individuals can discuss drug use, and information is provided on overdose prevention and lower-risk substance use. Referrals to other health and social services are also offered,” adds Airth. “By providing this information to people who use drugs, they can choose to use their substances in a more informed and lower-risk way, and prevent overdose and other complications.”
Information about the Campus Health harm reduction services and exact dates and locations of drug-checking opportunities are available at: campushealth.ok.ubc.ca/harm-reduction-at-ubco