VANCOUVER — A shoe box-sized machine is powering a one-year pilot project with the hope of cutting British Columbia's soaring overdose death rate.
The specialized portable machine costs $60,000 and uses infrared light to test small samples of illicit drugs for contaminants.
Two supervised consumption sites in Vancouver started sharing the machine last week for two days a week each in an effort to determine if drug checking will reduce overdoses.
The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is also expanding the use of fentanyl test strips in all supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites.
The powerful opioid was detected in about 83 per cent of the 1,103 overdose deaths in the province in the first nine months of this year, the BC Coroners said Thursday.
In 2016, 982 people fatally overdosed in British Columbia.
"Drug checking is something that can give people the information they need in order to make choices about how much to use and whether to use. And this information can save a person's life," Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said at a news conference on Friday.
Former drug user Dean Wilson attended the news conference and said he believes the testing will be beneficial.
"The fact that we're going to be able to actually figure out what's going into our bodies is huge. It's going to save lives and its going to save lives across this province," he said.
In most cases, the powerful painkiller fentanyl was combined with other drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, the coroners service said.
In 2012, fentanyl was detected in just four per cent of overdose deaths.
Insite, a supervised consumption facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, has been using fentanyl test strips since July 2016. Dr. Mark Lysyshyn with Vancouver Coastal Health said results from Insite show drug checking changes the way people use illicit substances.
When people saw their drugs tested positive for fentanyl, they reduced the amount they used, he said.
"When they did that, they overdosed less often. So it helps people make safer decisions and use drugs in a safer way."
Two other health authorities in the Fraser Valley and the Interior recently introduced fentanyl test strips at some overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites.
The government said more of the test strips will be sent to the remaining sites across the province in the coming weeks.
Safe consumption sites have opened around B.C., and the coroners' service said there have been no deaths at those locations.
Ninety per cent of the deaths this year happened indoors, and half were in private homes, the service said.
Three-quarters of those who died were between the ages of 30 and 59, and four out of five were men.
Darcy said the province has launched a campaign to address the stigma around drug use in hopes of reaching people who use alone.
Whether the drug-checking program will be expanded to facilities other than supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites will be based on the evidence gathered, Darcy said.
The Fraser Health Authority, which covers Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods from Burnaby to Hope on the east side of the Fraser Valley, had the most deaths this year at 295, followed by Vancouver at 269 fatalities.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press