Pharmacy To Sell $5 Kit To Test Street Drugs For Fentanyl

By Zachary Siegel 10/25/16

Harm reduction experts think these tests should be made available everywhere.

Pharmacy To Sell $5 Kit To Test Street Drugs For Fentanyl
Photo: The National/YouTube

A deadly tidal wave of fentanyl is racing across North America. Imported from clandestine labs in Mexico or the loosely regulated chemical industry in China, the potent opioid is responsible for outbreaks of overdoses from Vancouver all the way to rural Ohio. 

Illegally manufactured fentanyl is so insidious because most users are in the market to buy heroin or OxyContin but unknowingly use an opioid several orders of magnitude stronger than what they think they purchased. 

On the North End of Winnipeg, the capital of the Canadian province of Manitoba, an infant was in critical condition after coming into contact with what police suspect was fentanyl residue. Even the tiniest amounts of fentanyl can pack a deadly punch. Luckily, the infant was revived. But police are beginning to respond to overdoses with hazmat suits because even accidentally inhaling it can be deadly. 

The infant’s case, along with a rash of other overdoses, prompted one pharmacy in Winnipeg to take the crisis head on by selling $5 test kits that determine the presence of fentanyl. 

Michael Watts, the owner and manager of Brothers Pharmacy, took the initiative to find a cheap version of the fentanyl test for his patrons. "The kits are really hard to come by in Manitoba,” he told CBC News. ”Not many people knew anything about it. We called around to Ontario and B.C. Finally, we found a company that can supply the strips to us." 

Watts explains how the test works. "They would have to put a small amount of their drug in water and then dip the test into water. As long as the drug is water-soluble, it'll come up in the test," said Watts. "We're actively searching for a test that will test a wider range of drugs."

These tests would, in theory, alert the user to exert caution when preparing a dose. But some users may not have the $5 to spare, let alone a small amount of powder. 

"This really is a disaster that's happening right across Canada," Philip Emberley, the Canadian Pharmacists Association's director of pharmacy innovation, told CBC News. "I don't think any community is actually immune to this at all."

Last year, 25% of people who died from overdoses in British Columbia tested positive for fentanyl. That’s up from just 5% three years earlier. In Alberta, 120 people died from fentanyl overdose, up from only six in 2011. 

Harm reduction experts think these tests should be made available everywhere.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.