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Municipal Politics

A New Drug Testing Location Opens Near Vancouver City Hall

Get Your Drugs Tested has expanded, despite its funding source facing raids and business licence pressures.

Michelle Gamage 7 Dec 2023The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is The Tyee’s health reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Get Your Drugs Tested has opened a second location at 245 W. Broadway, a four-minute walk from the Broadway-City Hall SkyTrain station.

The free drug checking service is designated by Vancouver Coastal Health as an overdose prevention site, which allows people to drop off samples of illicit substances, and for the team to handle those substances, without risk of arrest.

“We’ll test anything. Heroin, cocaine, psychedelics, down, pills — it’s all about helping people make a more informed decision,” said founder Dana Larsen, a longtime drug reform activist.

Anyone can use the free service. When someone drops off a sample in person, a team member will ask them some questions, like what they think the substance is and if they have used it before. A person can choose if they’d like to wait and hear the results in 10 to 15 minutes, or receive a phone call or email with their results.

Occasionally results can take a couple of hours if the team is dealing with a backlog that day, Larsen said.

The store officially opened Monday. Its hours will be from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, for the next month or so. Larsen said they’ll expand those hours to 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. as demand grows.

At the soft opening on Monday, Angus Quinton, a Get Your Drugs Tested manager, tested a mailed-in sample and found it to be ketamine with no cuts or buffs.

A Fourier transform infrared spectrometer on the left, and a laptop shows a drug testing result on the right.
A Fourier transform infrared spectrometer. Get Your Drugs Tested has checked nearly 60,000 samples. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

At that time no one had dropped off samples in person, but Get Your Drugs Tested accepts mailed-in samples, too, so there’s always a stack of mail to get through.

To conduct their testing, the team uses a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer and fentanyl and benzodiazepine test strips. The test strips detect trace amounts of fentanyl and benzodiazepines but can say only if the drug is or isn’t present, not how potent it is or what analogues it contains.

Get Your Drugs Tested’s 880 E. Hastings location, which opened in 2019, has four Fourier transform infrared spectrometers.

Larsen said he’d eventually like to add a third location and have a mobile testing lab that could further increase people’s ability to test their drugs.

Get Your Drugs Tested has checked nearly 60,000 samples, Larsen said. According to a provincial database of drug checking results, Get Your Drugs Tested does around 59 per cent of the total drug checking in the province.

Larsen said the province should be leading this charge, not a non-profit.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said that in the last six years B.C. has “vastly expanded” drug checking services, with 90 locations in operation today and 41 where people can drop off samples for rapid FTIR spectrometer testing.

“The provincial approach has been to really connect drug checking with point-of-care opportunities, so they’ve primarily been located in overdose prevention sites where we can provide more wraparound services for people,” Whiteside said.

Larsen said if drug testing is available only in overdose prevention sites, then some users will not use the service because they feel like they’re taking up critical resources or don’t feel like their drug use is serious enough to walk through the front doors.

Whiteside said there’s “obviously value” in both approaches.

“As we look to the next phase of how to develop the provincial drug checking services, we’ll be looking at different models,” she said.

She added that drug testing services are “absolutely key as one of the important ways we provide harm reduction services.”

A light-skinned woman with greying hair cut into a bob stands at a podium.
Drug testing services are ‘key’ to harm reduction, says Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside. The government is working to develop technology and increase access to drug testing, she adds. Photo via BC government.

Currently the government is also in talks with researchers at the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project, which is working on developing new ways to test drugs and ways to make drug testing more accessible for small or remote communities.

“We’re working on supporting developing technology as well as looking at how to increase access to drug testing services,” Whiteside said.

Larsen said he’d also like to see provincial drug testing services expand their hours and the number of days a week they’re running in order to make the service as accessible as possible.

The city cracks down

The Vancouver Dispensary Society runs stores that sell illicit cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms in Vancouver. The Medical Cannabis Dispensary has two locations, and there are three Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary stores.

It’s the revenue from these “mushroom and cannabis sales” that funds the two locations for Get Your Drugs Tested, Larsen said.

While these dispensary stores sell unregulated products, Larsen said, he still tries to follow what rules he can, including maintaining up-to-date business licences for two of his five stores while working to getting a third licensed as a cannabis retailer.

But that doesn’t mean his relationship with local authorities is always smooth.

A light-skinned man with grey hair and a beard holds two jars of psychedelic mushrooms.
The revenue from mushroom and cannabis sales funds Get Your Drugs Tested, Larsen says. Photo for The Tyee by Michelle Gamage.

Larsen is waiting for the City of Vancouver to have a special hearing to discuss whether or not his mushroom dispensaries should be allowed to be licensed. The hearing was originally scheduled for Dec. 6 but has been postponed to an undetermined date.

His mushroom stores and one cannabis store were also raided by the Vancouver Police Department on Nov. 1. When the raids took place, Larsen was detained for several hours before being released without charges.

Larsen said this municipal pressure has “slowed down” his efforts to scale up drug checking services — but it hasn’t derailed them.

If the city strips him of his business licence, he’ll be just like the dozen other illicit mushroom dispensaries in the city that operate without a licence, he said.

If politicians and police want to control drug sales, they need to license all dispensaries and regulate all substances, he added.

It is prohibition and the war on drugs that created the toxic drug supply in the first place, Larsen said. “All of our employees and all of our businesses are committed to ending prohibition and the war on drugs. We’re working to give back and trying to save some lives.”

There may be some Sundays when the Broadway location of Get Your Drugs Tested is closed over the holidays, Quinton said. The best way to check for hours updates is social media, he added.  [Tyee]

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