The AMS plans to distribute strips to help students test their drugs for fentanyl as the overdose crisis in BC continues and the street drug supplies become increasingly potent and unpredictable.
Fentanyl, a powerful opioid, has contributed to at least 85 per cent of the more than 2,700 overdose deaths in BC since January 2020. It can be present in a number of common party drugs and powder substances like cocaine, MDMA or “Molly” and ketamine.
AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Eshana Bhangu and President Cole Evans made the announcement in August, adding that they will distribute around 200 to 500 strips on campus this fall.
In a statement sent to The Ubyssey, Evans said that the AMS has been unable to distribute the testing strips due to supply issues.
“The AMS continues to engage in conversations with local health authorities and non-profits to procure Fentanyl test strips that can be distributed to the UBC student community,” the statement reads.
Overdosing is a risk for casual and recreational substance users who take different drugs at parties, not just people who use regularly or who have a substance use disorder. After a year away from campus parties, many infrequent substance users likely have little tolerance or knowledge of the drug supply.
The AMS announcement comes as BC endures its sixth year of its public health emergency due to the overdose crisis. The emergency was declared back in April 2016.
Since then, nearly 8,000 British Columbians have died, about 15 percent of whom were under age 29.
Evans also said the AMS is continuing its communications with both UBC and the BC government “to ensure that institutions in B.C. are taking the threat posed by the opioid crisis seriously and are providing the appropriate resources to our UBC student community.” This has included seeking to set up testing sites on campus in partnership with UBC or external bodies, but these efforts have been unsuccessful due to capacity issues.
In the meantime, the student society is utilizing their peer support service to administer future programs related to the overdose crisis. Evans did not provide further details on what these programs would look like.
Are the fentanyl strips enough?
But as an increasing array of substances continue to infiltrate the street drug supply, fentanyl strips may be limited in their utility, said Dr. Thomas Kerr, a professor in the faculty [of medicine and associate director of the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU).
“While [fentanyl strips] detect certain substances, they may not be able to detect other toxic substances that might be present, including some that are very strong like carfentanil,” he said. Carfentanil is an opioid about 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Other deadly combinations include mixing opioids with depressants like benzodiazepines.
Kerr also said that sometimes illicit drugs are prepared unevenly, so the dosage tested may not contain fentanyl, however another dosage might. Other substances within a drug could affect the accuracy of the testing strips, or the quantity of the sample that's tested may be too limited to detect the presence of a particular substance.
And in rare cases, fentanyl strips have shown a false negative, when fentanyl was in fact present, Kerr explained.
“It's better than doing nothing, but we need to do a lot more to really combat the current fentanyl epidemic,” he said.
The main issue is a contaminated drug supply, and a potential solution is to “provide a safe supply of illicit drugs for people to access, so they don't have to turn to the contaminated drug supply and risk overdose every day,” said Kerr.
On September 9, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions launched a campaign to raise awareness for post-secondary students about drug toxicity.
The announcement included measures such as the launch of Here2Talk, as well as plans to expand Fundry centres and Foundry virtual to help youth up to the age of 24 access supports like counselling, peer support, primary care and family support. The announcement did not mention anything related to drug testing.
In an interview with The Ubyssey, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said that the focus of their social media campaign is to raise awareness about the overdose crisis.
Malcolmson said that, at a province-wide level, access to Naloxone — a fast-acting drug used to temporarily reverse the effects of opioid overdoses — is being expanded, with a million kits being shipped. She did not specify where these kits were sent, however.
“With more than five people dying each day in British Columbia because of poisoned drugs, it's crucial that people understand that toxic drugs are circulating, and people should take every precaution when they use,” she said in the press release announcing the awareness campaign.
For more information on how to prevent overdoses: https://www.StopOverdoseBC.ca
For information on how to apply for a Facility Overdose Response Box: https://towardtheheart.com/forb-sites
To access virtual low- and no-cost mental health and substance use services: www.gov.bc.ca/covid19mentalhealthsupports