By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer
Two years ago, activist and local business owner Dana Larsen opened the Get Your Drugs Tested program to combat the opioid crisis in Vancouver. Since then, Larsen’s company has done over 20,000 drug tests, making it one of Vancouver’s busiest drug testing services. The Peak interviewed Larsen about the program.
Get Your Drugs Tested is an anonymous and free service located on Hastings Street, where drug users and dealers can have their supplies tested. They use a fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) machine and test strips to analyze various drug substances such as psychedelics, methamphetamines, opioids, and pharmaceuticals. The FTIR machine shines an infrared light through a sample and analyzes its makeup.
Larsen said they can test for the presence of fentanyl, which is “a big issue” for drug users. The City of Vancouver attributes the growing amount of overdoses to drugs being contaminated with fentanyl, a toxic substance estimated to be “20 to 40 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.” Get Your Drugs Tested does over three quarters of all drug testing in BC, said Larsen. “The province of British Columbia offers drug testing as well. I think they have over a dozen machines around the province [ . . . ] whereas we only have two, but they don’t really seem to use theirs at all.”
“It seems to me that the testing the province does is more sort of spot checking to give information for academics and analysts to kind of look at trends and things like that. But in terms of helping a drug user make an informed choice at that moment, they’re not doing very well at all,” he said.
FTIR machines can also test for many other substances. “We often find things where maybe it’s not going to kill the person but it’s not what they thought they were buying.”
The testing process takes 5–10 minutes and individuals can receive their results instantly. “Then we have a little talk with the person and tell them what the results were. And also tell them what that means. Even if it is what they thought it was going to be, we give them some guidance on how to use that substance safely and some awareness on how to be a responsible user,” said Larsen.
While about 85% of their business comes from in-person visits, the rest comes from people sending in their samples for testing from across Canada.
Larsen would like to see testing machines available in every city across Canada. “I think it’s an investment that would save a lot of money because sending out paramedics to an overdose is very expensive, and harmful to public health as well. So I think, not only can we save a lot of lives and have a lot of benefits, but we can save a lot of money too.”
The affordability and accessibility of the tests is a primary concern for Larsen and why the service offers tests for free. “When we first launched, we thought about charging $5 a test,” he explained. “Some drug users certainly can afford it, but others cannot. And we didn’t want to put any barriers [up]. I wouldn’t want to feel that, for the lack of a $5 bill, someone had an overdose and died.”
According to the Ministry of Health, a drug test for opiates in June 2020 costs around $7.16 in provincial laboratories.
Larsen noted the term “opioid epidemic” is a misleading one. He explains during prohibition, people weren’t dying from alcohol, they were dying from the “alcohol poisoning crisis caused by prohibition.” This is because with added restrictions, people don’t know which subtances are added to their drugs as there is a lack of reliable sources. Similarly, he said, “Calling it an opioid epidemic blames opioids. And so I prefer to call it a drug poisoning crisis.
“Our laws and prohibitions make it extremely difficult for drug users to be responsible to know what they’re taking [ . . . ] Prohibition itself is the problem, not really the drugs themselves,” said Larsen. “Drugs always become stronger, more potent, and more dangerous when prohibited.”
The program’s record of past samples gives them the biggest known database of drug tests, according to Larsen. This can help analysts recognize the current trends of drug contamination and potential for the presence of substances like fentanyl in Vancouver.
The Get Your Drugs Tested program is entirely funded by The Medical Cannabis Dispensary, one of Larsen’s other businesses. Along with this, he owns Pothead Books and Coca Lead Cafe.
Readers interested in learning more about Larsen and his programs can visit his website.