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Changes in illicit drug supply offer challenges for Vancouver Island researchers

Its storefront open a year, UVic’s Substance project looks to scale up services
UVic social work professor Bruce Wallace and chemistry prof Dennis Hore, project leaders for the Substance drug-checking project, stand in front of their storefront location on Cook street. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)

March 23 marked one year since the University of Victoria’s Substance drug-checking project began operating its storefront location, balancing the need to scale its services with the difficulty of implementing more precise technology.

Substance brought social workers and chemists into the same room to research and produce effective drug-testing tools for users – it shares a building with SOLID Outreach. Social work professor Bruce Wallace and chemistry prof Dennis Hore have led the project since its early inception in 2016.

In the year at the corner North Park and Cook streets, Substance has tested over 2,500 hand delivered and mailed-in drug samples for chemicals such as fentanyl that would otherwise contribute to the fatal opioid crisis. Each test adds to Substance’s weekly reports intended to inform drug users of new ingredients in Victoria’s illicit drug supply.

READ ALSO: Vancouver Islanders can now have opioids, other drugs lab-checked by mail

After six years of researching, and ultimately developing a drug-testing service unlike any other in the province, Wallace said their goal is to scale up and share their model. In the coming weeks, Substance will provide organizations in Port Alberni and Campbell River with lab-grade equipment training, he said.

The goal to develop cost-effective, low barrier and comprehensive drug-checking technology to better advise the risk assumed when taking illicit drugs is challenged by the cost and specificity required.

“It’s 2022, and people are still wondering what the technologies are for drug checking. The problem is the bar is always changing, and the bar is always moving,” Hore said. When fentanyl first became a fatal concern in 2016, a simple positive-or-negative test sufficed. Today, there’s a much greater need to assess the presence and potency of unexpected compounds such as benzodiazepines, which can drastically change the survival odds of a fentanyl overdose, Hore said.

The project’s most compact tool, a Raman Spectroscopy machine, provides that detail using microscopic lasers and scattered light, but costs about $90,000. Substance is working with partners to develop a similar tool in the $5,000 range.

A portable Raman Spectroscopy machine, worth $90,000, is an everyday tool for the Substance drug checking project. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)
A portable Raman Spectroscopy machine, worth $90,000, is an everyday tool for the Substance drug checking project. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)

READ ALSO: Public shaming, hate perpetuates further substance use: UVic researcher

Hore, who has an academic background in chemical instrumentation and analysis, didn’t choose his field with harm reduction in mind. He was asked to lend his expertise in operating drug checking technology in 2016. Over the last year at Substance’s Cook Street location, Hore said he’s come to appreciate the crisis’s public pervasiveness.

“People talk about six degrees of separation in terms of people in the world being connected. When it comes to the opioid crisis, it’s more like two degrees. Everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by opioids in one way or another,” he said.

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