Sudbury, Ont., lawyer says some illicit drugs she sent to Vancouver lab don’t match what’s advertised

A harm reduction advocate from Sudbury, Ont., has started collecting samples of street drugs so they can be tested at a Vancouver lab to help protect addicts from overdoses, and she’s already learning that some are not as advertised.

Marie Pollock is co-founder of the Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention Society, which provides peer support and awareness based on her lived experience with drugs.

In April, she began sending drug samples to Vancouver Get your medications testedwhich has two spectrometers and tests drugs from across Canada.

In 2021, Greater Sudbury Paramedic Services responded to 896 suspected opioid-related incidents, according to the city health unit. The most recent figures from the Ontario coroner show that 100 people died of drug overdoses or suspected overdoses at Public Health Sudbury & Districts last year.

There are more than 200 white crosses at the Crosses for Change site, on the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Sudbury. It is a poignant and eye-catching memorial to those lost to the opioid crisis. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

“It’s very dangerous out there with that toxic supply,” Pollock said. “We need safe supplies.”

Get Your Drugs Tested is a private organization funded by the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary. It does not charge for tests but accepts donations.

So far, the Vancouver lab has found issues with some of the samples Pollock has sent for analysis.

For example, some samples sold as down (a mixture of heroin and fentanyl) contained psychoactive drugs called benzodiazepines and a synthetic sweetener as a filler.

Pollock said addicts want to know what they’re taking and his efforts could save lives by giving them that information.

Vancouver-based Get Your Drugs Tested is one of the busiest places of its kind in the world and tests 50-60 drug samples daily from across Canada. (Submitted by Allen Custance)

Allen Custance, site manager at Get Your Drugs Tested, said the facility receives samples from across Canada and conducts 50 to 60 tests per day.

“At this point we have two machines running eight hours a day.”

One machine is dedicated to local Vancouver samples and the other to those delivered from across Canada. Custance said it may be the busiest such facility in the world.

“A lot of people tell us that we save lives, you know, especially if you’re using something like fentanyl,” he said.

“Drug control services are kind of the only information you have about the dose of your substance.”

Get Your Drugs Tested, which works closely with Vancouver Coastal Health, is one of only two facilities in Canada that accepts samples sent by mail.

Many people tell us that we save lives…especially if you use something like fentanyl.​​​– Allen Custance, site manager, Get your meds tested

The Sudbury Action Center for Youth, an organization that offers a number of services, including harm reduction, helps cover postage for people who want to send their drug samples to Get Your Drug Tested.

Karissa Cantin, coordinator of the center’s harm reduction program, said they provide prepaid envelopes to clients so they can send them in for testing.

Cantin said it started offering the service in October. Additionally, she said, the center offers fentanyl test strips that can detect if a sample contains fentanyl.

Cantin said the strips are more limited because they are only designed to detect one type of drug and will not give a detailed dose breakdown. But the results are immediate.

For samples sent to Vancouver, it can take up to two weeks to get results.

Risk reduction alternatives

Heidi Eisenhauer, executive director of Reseau Access Network in Sudbury, a non-profit dedicated to harm reduction, said sending samples to other parts of the country is rarely practical, nor is opening a disease control lab drugs locally.

“When someone thinks about taking or using a substance, normally they don’t think about waiting a few weeks for results,” she said. “So in the long run it’s not really an option.”

Reseau Access Network plans to open an overdose prevention site and will offer the more limited fentanyl strip test. But Eisenhauer said mass spectrometers are expensive to buy for small communities and organizations.

Dr David Marsh, professor of clinical sciences at NOSM University, says supervised injection sites, with prescribed medication, are the gold standard in many European countries to help prevent overdose deaths. (NOEM)

Dr. David Marsh, associate dean for research, innovation and international relations at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and an addictions specialist, agreed that a spectrometer would not be practical at Sudbury.

“To be honest, even the hospital here in Sudbury is not able to do that level of testing on samples when people come to the ER with an overdose.”

Marsh said supervised injection sites, with prescribed drugs, are the gold standard in many European countries to help prevent overdose deaths.

“So someone who injects, snorts, or smokes fentanyl could go to a clinic and have a doctor prescribe the drug they need, and they could inject it under supervision at a known dose.”

Marsh said some provinces, such as British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick, have started to adopt this model, but it has yet to be used in Ontario.