Patricia Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, says the organization is trying to prevent overdose deaths with a new drug-checking pilot program that launched on Aug. 31. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Blood Ties launches a new drug-testing program in Whitehorse

People can bring in pills, rocks or powder to see if they contain fentanyl

Overdose deaths are preventable, says Patricia Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions. That’s what Blood Ties is trying to do with a new drug-checking pilot program that launched on Aug. 31 — International Overdose Awareness Day.

The program, similar to those already established in Vancouver, will operate during the same hours Blood Ties operates its needle exchange.

During those hours, people can bring in pills, rocks or powder to see if they contain fentanyl.

Bacon says the strips used in testing (which takes five to 10 minutes) are so sensitive that people can bring a piece of a rock of crack cocaine, or even just the bag the drugs came in.

What testing can’t do, she says, is check for non-fentanyl contamination or verify the quantity of fentanyl in a drug.

Bacon says Blood Ties started talking about the idea of a drug-checking program in the winter of 2017.

“The reason why we were talking about it is a couple reasons. One, we are unfortunately, in Canada and in the Yukon, still in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis,” she says.

Heather Jones, chief coroner for the Yukon, told the News there have been 10 confirmed fentanyl-related deaths in the territory since April 2016.

Bacon says the broad rollout of naloxone kits has been great, but that’s just one component of harm reduction. She says users of the needle exchange started asking for drug-checking, citing programs on Vancouver’s downtown east side. Those also began as pilots, in July 2016.

The outcome of those programs has been good, Bacon says. They don’t always encourage people not to use, but they can help people form safer habits. If people know there is fentanyl present, they may choose to use less of the drug. They may choose to use with friends, or with friends with a naloxone kit. Those who typically inject may choose to smoke instead, which is safer.

Bacon says it took a while to get the program up and running, but not because of funding.

The cost of operating it is negligible. The strips themselves aren’t expensive, and the program is being run at the same time as the needle exchange.

What did take time was getting an exemption from Health Canada. Bacon says there are strict guidelines around who can operate the program and where it can be done. Which makes sense, she says, when you’re dealing with vulnerable populations and highly toxic drugs.

She says Blood Ties also needed the endorsement of health minister Pauline Frost (Frost did not reply to request for comment). It also got the endorsement of the chief medical officer of health.

Since a soft launch in July, staff have been getting a handle on the program.

Bacon says Blood Ties is working to identify problems, which include the fact that occasional or recreational users sometimes don’t see themselves as users and don’t think to get drugs tested.

As well, she said those who use can develop a false sense of security that an overdose won’t happen to them. They trust that their dealers wouldn’t sell them bad drugs. The issue there is that those drugs are coming from elsewhere.

“And the drug supply everywhere in Canada is highly vulnerable.”

“Not everyone really realizes that in a visceral way.”

Over the next year, she says Blood Ties will be looking at uptake in the program, who’s using the service, how many positive test results they’re getting, and more. In the long run, she says it might make sense that the program is more widely available in the territory.

“People who use drugs have the right to not have to take their lives into their hands every single time they use. That’s what we want. We want people to be alive.”

Hours for the program (administered at Blood Ties at 405 Ogilvie St.) are Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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