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Mobile illicit-drug testing pilot program coming to Calgary

The Alberta Alliance Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly (AAWEAR) is bringing a first of its kind illicit-drug testing and education program to Calgary.

Thanks to $600,000 in funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the support of the local business community, the group will be providing mobile testing that they say will save lives.

According to the Government of Alberta, from January to December 2021, a total of 1,610 people died across the province due to due poisoning deaths from opioids. That’s 446 more than in 2020, and 985 more than in 2019. In Calgary, 499 people died of opioid drug poisoning in 2021.

“Testing is just another tool in the tool belt to help prevent unnecessary deaths from the toxic illicit drug supply that’s currently in Alberta,” said Kathleen Larose, executive director for AAWEAR.

“Having a service like this will at least allow folks to know, and build autonomy within folks to know what it is that they’re potentially going to be taking,” she said.

Calgary drug pilot

The program will be piloted in Calgary. It will consist of a mobile drug testing van, a permanent drug testing office, and wrap around supports and services like Naloxone and basic needs supplies distribution, and referrals for trauma-informed care.

“While people are waiting for their drugs to be checked, we can continue to have those engaging conversations with folks and supporting them wherever they’re at,” said Larose.

The pilot program is expected to begin in June, with services beginning in the fall. Funding has been provided for 18 months. They said that their program would be modelled after existing projects in other parts of the country. It will be led by people with lived experience of drug use.

AAWEAR is aiming to provide services seven days a week, for 16 hours a day, from 7 am to 11 pm.

Knowing what is within drugs makes a difference

Currently in Alberta, a significant percentage of illicit drugs sold are cross contaminated with substances not disclosed to buyers.

Larose pointed to a study that came out of the use of drug testing at music festivals in B.C. by the AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS). Beginning in 2018, ANKORS utilized a FTIR spectral analysis machine to test for the types of substances within an illict-drug sample.

They found that 77 per cent of users would test their drugs, and within that group, 50 per cent of the people who found their drugs laced with fentanyl would dispose of their drugs. Users who did not dispose of their drugs were 10 times more likely to reduce they amount they took.

A systematic review of published academic literature in 2021 found that identifying fentanyl in illicit-drugs both reduced dosage taken, and likelihood of overdoses.

AAWEAR is aiming to also use FTIR spectral analysis machine as part of the pilot program. The group will also be supply drug sample testing strips. This will further reduce barriers to access and to extend the reach of the service.

"We're hoping that we can have a similar kind of effect, if we implemented a service such as this in Alberta," said Larose.

Overall AAWEAR is aiming for a 67 percent increase in the amount of drug poisoning prevented through the service.

The testing will assist in recovery and detox programs as well. It could help health practitioners identify how they can best help their patients.

"A lot of folks, they don't actually know what they're hooked on. Having a service like this can actually identify what people are taking," said Larose.

"So if someone thinks they're taking heroin, when really it's completely mixed with fentanyl, they're not only addicted to taking the heroin,"

Community involvement through partnerships, consultation

Ward 8 Councillor Courtney Walcott—who represents the Beltline community—said that the pilot program was a welcome and also necessary one.

"It is just one step among many that need to be taken, but I am hopeful to see services like these become widely accessible," he said.

In addition to the funding by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Beltline BIA will be providing an in-kind donation of a van to run the mobile testing out of, and the potential for office space for a fixed-location for drug testing.

The program will also have an academic advisory board on drug testing and drug policy consisting of members from the University of Calgary, University of Alberta, University of Victoria, and the University of Toronto.

Community consultation is also a key aspect to the pilot, from finding the right locations to ensuring no harm is brought to local communities. Prior to starting the pilot consultation phase, AAWEAR will create a city map where services would be most needed.

"We're going to host some educational events just around what drug checking services look like, and then also have some engaging conversations with both businesses, neighbourhood residents, and other community based organizations to see where would be an ideal location for us to set up, so we're not bringing any harm to the communities as well," said Larose.