Dana Larsen: 10,000 street drug samples analyzed in Vancouver

Free local service does the most drug checking in Canada

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      In May 2019, I launched a community service called Get Your Drugs Tested at 880 East Hastings. Funded entirely by our unlicensed cannabis dispensary, we've now tested over 10,000 street drug samples, free of charge, as a way of helping to keep the drug-using community safe.

      We have two machines called "FTIR Spectrometers" which allow us to quickly analyze most kinds of chemical substances. We can't do herbs like whole cannabis, but we can analyze all kinds of street drugs, anything from heroin to cocaine, xanax to viagra, LSD to DMT. We also use fentanyl test strips when needed to be extra sure.

      We're the only place in Canada where anyone can drop by seven days a week or send in samples by mail.

      B.C. health authorities also provide free drug analysis, but the NDP doesn't properly fund it so it's not readily available. For instance, aside from our service, drug checking is only available in Vancouver for just a few hours at a time, a few days a week, at some injection sites.

      As a result, our more accessible privately-run drug-checking service is doing two-thirds of all tests in B.C.! And unlike the government's drug-checking, we post all our test results right away in an online database which anyone can search by city or by substance.

      With over 10,000 results in our database, we have become the world's largest resource for drug analysis results. We provide our data to the B.C. Centre on Substance Use for their research and bulletins, but our main priority is to help drug users make informed decisions.

      Data and results

      Here's roughly how many samples we've received by city:

      8,400 Vancouver

      60 Victoria

      500 Rest of B.C.

      140 Toronto

      180 Montreal

      90 Rest of Quebec

      80 Calgary

      70 Edmonton

      50 Winnipeg

      40 Hamilton

      15 Regina

      10 Saskatoon

      Of the 10,000 samples we have tested, here's what the users thought they were bringing in.

      1,700 "Down"

      600 Fentanyl

      500 Heroin

      1,900 MDMA/MDA

      1,600 Cocaine

      1,100 Ketamine

      600 Meth

      500 Xanax

      250 LSD

      130 DMT

      100 Oxycodone

      70 GHB

      40 Viagra/Cialis

      35 Hydromorphone

      750 Unknown

      Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has almost entirely replaced heroin on the streets of Canada.

      Fentanyl

      Fentanyl has almost entirely replaced heroin on the street over the past several years. We found that about half of samples brought in by people who had purchased "heroin" were mostly or entirely fentanyl.

      Fentanyl was found in just under 1 percent of cocaine and MDMA samples. That's actually a high rate of contamination—imagine if 1 percent of cannabis or alcohol samples had fentanyl! Users of these two drugs usually do not have any tolerance to opiates so fentanyl contamination can be even more deadly in these cases.

      In 250 LSD samples we've had one positive test result for fentanyl.

      Benzodiapezines

      Although fentanyl is usually identified as the biggest driver of overdoses, benzodiazepines have become increasingly common in street "down" and can cause overdoses even more difficult to recover from.

      Etizolam is a powerful drug in the benzodiazepine family which we found in about 300 samples. We found many instances of people thinking they had purchased fentanyl but it was actually etizolam, or etizolam and fentanyl together.

      We've also found many samples where the user thought they had bought Xanax, but it was actually etizolam.

      Cocaine

      About four percent of the cocaine samples we analyzed contained levamisole, a dewormer which can have serious side effects. Levamisole is sometimes used to cut cocaine because it has a stimulating effect, a similar appearance to cocaine, and doesn't show up on most street purity tests.

      About 18 percent of cocaine samples had been cut with phenacetin, a chemical close to acetaminophen with analgesic properties. Phenacetin used to be sold as a fever-reducer but was taken off the market in 1983 due to carcinogenic and kidney-damaging properties.

      MDMA

      The vast majority of MDMA samples we tested were pure MDMA. However, about one percent contained fentanyl.

      In a few cases MDMA was mixed with other drugs and being sold as "2C-B".

      A common cutting agent for MDMA is Dimethyl Sulfone, a relatively safe and neutral buffer substance.

      MDMA and MDA are also sometimes sold as each other.

      Caffeine and Erythritol

      Surprisingly, the most commonly found substance in all our tests is caffeine! Caffeine powder is a very common cutting agent, usually mixed with cocaine, MDMA and opiates like heroin and fentanyl.

      Our results show that a majority of what is sold on the street as "Down" is a mix of caffeine, fentanyl and sometimes other substances like erythritol, a low-calorie sweetener.

      Caffeine was present in 2,100 of all samples, erythritol was present in about 550.

      Viagra and Cialis

      Sildenafil and tadalafil sometimes show up in odd places. More commonly known by their trade names of Viagra and Cialis, we've occasionally found these drugs in samples that had been sold as MDMA, Ketamine, Fentanyl and Xanax.

      When people bring in samples of what they believe is Viagra or Cialis, it's usually what they expected, but also often cut with something neutral and not 100 percent pure.

      There's all kinds of other interesting results to be found in our database of test results. It's fascinating to go through and see what's out there.

      Spread the word

      One of our biggest challenges is simply making people aware of our service, both in Vancouver and across Canada. We've run national poster campaigns, promoted on social media and sought out media coverage whenever possible. Please spread the word, share our Twitter and Facebook profiles.

      If you want some stickers and posters for your community, please contact us and we'll send you some. Remember, if you or someone you love uses drugs, then please get your drugs tested.

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      Dana Larsen is an author, advocate, and activist for cannabis and drug policy reform. Follow him on Twitter @danalarsen. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.

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