Drug Checking for Contaminants / Drug Checking Services

1. Drug Checking Services

"A public health intervention operating for more than 50 years, drug checking services (DCS) allow the public to submit drug samples from unregulated drug markets (i.e. illegal and legal drugs sold through criminal channels) for chemical analysis. DCS emerged across the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the rise of a psychedelic counterculture that championed the use of psychoactive substances to expand consciousness [1, 2]. DCS were later expanded in European settings throughout the 1990s, beginning in the Netherlands, primarily in response to the popularity of dance events and associated use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and other drugs [3, 4]. More recently, DCS have been implemented in Australasia, the Americas and the United Kingdom, often with an emphasis on preventing harms from new psychoactive substances (NPS), including synthetic opioids. A global review of DCS conducted in 2017 identified 31 services operating across 20 countries [5]. Notably, the contamination of unregulated drug markets with fentanyl and the resulting opioid overdose crisis has motivated the recent expansion of DCS in Canada [6] and the United States [7].

"DCS provide people who use drugs (PWUD) with information on the chemical composition of their drug samples to facilitate more informed decision-making [8]. While some analysis methods can be operated by PWUD, DCS typically offer tailored harm reduction advice with the provision of analysis results to PWUD [9]. By aggregating data on the composition of drug samples, DCS provide insight into trends in the unregulated drug supply and inform policymaking and harm reduction activities at the population level [10]. DCS can inform public health alerts [11] when drugs of concern are detected, thus offering potential benefits to the broader community of PWUD and service providers [12]. DCS differ globally in terms of their legality and degree of government support, as well as where and how samples are collected and analysed. Models include mobile services at events, fixed services where samples can be dropped off or mailed and the distribution of analysis methods for personal use, all of which employ a variety of technologies with differing benefits and drawbacks [8, 13, 14]."

Maghsoudi N, Tanguay J, Scarfone K, Rammohan I, Ziegler C, Werb D, et al. Drug checking services for people who use drugs: a systematic review. Addiction. 2021;1–13. doi.org/10.1111/add.15734

2. Drug Checking Services: Effects on Drug Use

"Studies found that DCS [Drug Consumption Services] influenced intended behaviour and, although less researched, enacted behaviour. Among studies of PWUD [People Who Use Drugs] in party settings (referred to as ‘partygoers’ in studies), greater intention to not use the analysed substance was consistently reported if analysis results were unexpected [33, 35, 40, 42, 43, 45, 48, 52] or ‘questionable’/‘suspicious’ [49–51]. For example, a cross-sectional study from Australia (n = 83) in 2018 found partygoers were more likely to change their intention to use when analysis results were unexpected [odds ratio (OR) = 2.63, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 0.85–8.16] [35], as did two cross-sectional studies from Portugal (n = 310, n = 100) in 2016 and 2014 [40, 43]. Similarly, other intended behaviour changes—such as using less of a substance or seeking more information about it—were more common among partygoers when analysis results from DCS suggested that substances were ‘questionable’/‘suspicious’ [49, 51].

"The proportion of participants reporting analysis results from DCS influenced their drug use varied by population and setting. Among partygoers, 16% of participants in the Netherlands in 1996 [29], 50% in Austria in 1997–99 [37] and 87% in New Zealand (n = 47) in 2018–19 [33] reported that analysis results impacted their drug use. A cross-sectional study in 2017 from the United States among people who inject drugs (n = 125) found 43% changed their behaviour, and this was more likely when fentanyl was detected [adjusted OR (aOR) = 5.08, 95% CI = 2.12–12.17] [22]. Qualitative and longitudinal studies of young PWUD (n = 81) in the United States in 2017 supported this finding, and found that fentanyl detection was associated with positive changes in overdose risk behaviours (i.e. using less, using with others, doing a test shot) [31, 34]. Overall, and in alignment with findings on intended drug use behaviour in response to ‘questionable’/‘suspicious’ analysis results, self-reported behaviour was more likely to change when analysis results detected fentanyl. Beyond individual analysis results, a repeated cross-sectional study from Colombia (n = 1533) in 2013 and 2016 examined the influence of alerts from DCS and found that a majority of partygoers reported an impact on their behaviour [36].

"Only one study linked intended behaviours to observed health outcomes for PWUD accessing DCS. A Canadian cross-sectional study of DCS at a supervised injection site (n = 1411) in 2016–17 found that people who inject drugs were more likely to report the intention to use a smaller quantity than usual when fentanyl was detected by DCS (OR = 9.36, 95% CI = 4.25–20.65) [41]. In turn, those intending to use a smaller quantity were found to be less likely to overdose (OR = 0.41, 95% CI = 0.18–0.89) and be administered naloxone (OR = 0.38, 95% CI = 0.15–0.96).

"Disposal of the analysed substance was observed [24, 26, 27, 32, 35] or self-reported [22, 31, 34] as an outcome of DCS in eight studies. Like other behaviours, disposal was more frequent when analysis results from DCS were unexpected [24, 27, 32, 52]."

Maghsoudi N, Tanguay J, Scarfone K, Rammohan I, Ziegler C, Werb D, et al. Drug checking services for people who use drugs: a systematic review. Addiction. 2021;1–13. doi.org/10.1111/add.15734

3. Drug Safety Testing as a Public Health Service

"Drug safety testing (drug checking) is a public health service whereby service users receive test results for a substance of concern submitted for forensic analysis as part of a harm reduction consultation.12-14 Testing of submitted samples may be conducted onsite in rapid realtime as part of an integrated testing service, or elsewhere by a partner laboratory. Whilst these services vary widely in terms of types of consultations, forensic analyses, staffing, funding, waiting times, whether community or event-based, static or mobile, permanent or temporary, and whether the testing service is integrated or split into individual components, their shared core aim is harm reduction and their shared core service characteristic is direct user engagement. The rationale for these services is that drug-related harm can arise from the consumption of illicit psychoactive substances of unknown content and strength. Therefore, if testing services share results and other relevant information directly with service users, and potentially also other interested parties such as wider drug using communities and support services, they can communicate the risks associated with consuming that substance and enhance users' ability to make educated and informed decisions to reduce or avert future harm, protect their health and reduce the burden on health services. For stakeholders and support services, testing provides an opportunity to monitor trends in illegal drug markets and associated harms, and for alerts to be issued that are timely and accurately targeted to the appropriate drug using communities by utilising information that links composition of individual samples with what they were sold as, a distinct added value of drug safety testing.14,15 A global audit16 identified 31 such drug safety testing programmes operated by 29 organisations in 20 countries at that time, with the largest and longest standing being the Dutch Drugs Information Monitoring System,17-19 and more services have started operating since that audit."

Measham F. (2020). City checking: Piloting the UK's first community-based drug safety testing (drug checking) service in 2 city centres. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 86(3), 420–428. doi.org/10.1111/bcp.14231

4. Few Stimulant-Specific Harm Reduction Responses Implemented Globally

"Few stimulant-specific harm reduction responses are implemented globally. Though NSPs and drug consumption rooms (DCRs) can be accessed by people who use stimulants, existing harm reduction services might not always be adequate for their needs.[34] For example, stimulant use is associated with more frequent injection than opioids, but limits in NSPs on the number of syringes that can be acquired at any one time represent a particular barrier for those injecting stimulants. Stimulants are also more likely to be smoked or inhaled than opioids, but not all DCRs permit inhalation on premises, and smoking equipment is rarely distributed. However, safer smoking kits for crack cocaine, cocaine paste and ATS are distributed in several territories, including Portugal[5][35] and harm reduction programmes for people who use non-injectable cocaine derivatives are in place in several countries in Latin America. There have been promising pilot programmes in Asia focusing on people who use methamphetamine, including outreach programmes distributing safer smoking kits, plastic straws, harm reduction education, and access to testing and treatment for HIV, hepatitis C, TB and other sexually transmitted diseases (see page 75 in Asia Chapter 2.1).

"Drug checking (services that enable people to voluntarily get the contents of their drugs analysed) is an important harm reduction intervention for people who use stimulants. These services are implemented in at least nine countries in Western Europe3, are available in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and are increasingly available in Latin America4. Eight countries in Eurasia5 have some form of drug checking services through distribution of reagent test kits at music festivals and nightlife settings. Other methods of drug checking include the use of mobile testing equipment to determine the contents of what is sold using tiny samples of the product, allowing for identification of both drugs and contaminants. Though availability of drug checking is growing globally from a low baseline, implementation faces serious legal barriers in many countries as it involves handling controlled substances, and drug checking services often require formal exemption from drug laws in order to operate legally.

"No approved substitution therapy for ATS exists, although pharmacologically-assisted treatment with methylphenidate for ATS users was authorised by the government in Czechia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in Canada, the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use released interim clinical guidance recommending the prescription of dexamphetamine and methylphenidate to people who use stimulants.[36]"

Harm Reduction International (2020). Global State of Harm Reduction 2020. London: Harm Reduction International.

5. Drug Checking

"Results from samples expected to be stimulants were divergent between testing groups. Crystal methamphetamine samples tested using take-home drug checking were reported as fentanyl positive more often than on-site samples (27.6% vs. 5.2%). The same pattern was seen for cocaine samples tested using take-home drug checking (17.2% vs. 1.1%). However, the study was underpowered to evaluate equivalence between these testing groups. A small portion of the test strips (3.8%) yielded an unclear or illegible response. It is unclear what the participants did in these cases, but the inclusion of multiple test strips would have allowed for repeat testing.

"Notably, when the results of take-home drug checking were stratified based on previous experience with fentanyl test strips, there was a trend towards a smaller difference between the results of take-home drug checking and on-site drug checking. For opioids, when only results from those who were using fentanyl test strips for the first time were included, there was a difference of 1.6% between take-home drug checking and on-site drug checking. This difference was reduced to 0.6% when only including samples from those who had self-reported prior experience with using fentanyl test strips. Similar results were seen for crystal methamphetamine (28.9% to 15.2%) and cocaine (28.3% to 7.8%)."

Klaire, S., Janssen, R. M., Olson, K., Bridgeman, J., Korol, E. E., Chu, T., Ghafari, C., Sabeti, S., Buxton, J. A., & Lysyshyn, M. (2022). Take-home drug checking as a novel harm reduction strategy in British Columbia, Canada. The International journal on drug policy, 106, 103741. doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2022.103741

6. Drug Checking Study In Vancouver, BC

"Based on our findings, distributed fentanyl test strips would be reliable for the testing of samples identified as opioids and should be more widely distributed. There is growing evidence that fentanyl test strips may help prevent overdose when included with other evidence-based strategies (Peiper, 2019). Other informal techniques such as visual inspection of a substance have been applied by PWUD, but may not be effective in substances that contain traces of fentanyl (Peiper et al., 2019). Our study situated fentanyl test strips within sites that provide naloxone kits, drug use supplies such as syringes, supervised consumption of substances, and drug checking using both test strips and more sophisticated technologies. In contrast to the potential for behaviour change from drug checking results, analysis of several cohort studies within Vancouver during the period of increasing fentanyl contamination in late 2016 showed that a majority of PWUD did not change their drug use behaviours nor translate the knowledge of a changing drug supply to an increased risk of overdose (Brar et al., 2020; Moallef et al., 2019). These findings indicate the need for targeted education and harm reduction interventions for those at risk. Distribution of testing supplies provides an opportunity for further engagement. In BC, an expansion of this pilot program, including continuation at sites included in this evaluation, has occurred to distribute fentanyl test strips labelled with instructions for use. Notably, the described positive behaviour changes rely on an individual possessing knowledge around safer ways to use substances, including knowledge around using a small amount (“test dosing”) and using with others or not alone to avoid overdose and allow for naloxone administration. Furthermore, participants identified using at an OPS/SCS as a potential behaviour, which necessitates that these services exist. Our findings around behaviour change in response to a positive fentanyl result underscore the need for comprehensive harm reduction services and education."

Klaire, S., Janssen, R. M., Olson, K., Bridgeman, J., Korol, E. E., Chu, T., Ghafari, C., Sabeti, S., Buxton, J. A., & Lysyshyn, M. (2022). Take-home drug checking as a novel harm reduction strategy in British Columbia, Canada. The International journal on drug policy, 106, 103741. doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2022.103741

7. City Checking: Community-Based Drug Safety Testing

"These pilots suggest that community-based drug safety testing can provide, first, engagement with more diverse drug–using communities than event-based testing—in terms of demographics, drugs of choice and risk taking behaviours—and therefore potentially can be more inclusive and impactful across drug–using communities including with marginalised groups. Second, there is the potential benefit of issuing proactive alerts for substances of concern in local drug markets ahead of specific leisure events, as happened with a mis-sold ketamine analogue identified in this study. Third, community testing can benefit from accessing fixed site laboratory facilities (in this case, a university chemistry department) to complement the speed and convenience of mobile laboratories with potentially greater analytical capabilities and trialling of new technological developments.

"These benefits cannot be presumed, however. The community pilots highlighted that service design characteristics and operational variations such as venue, day of week, prior publicity and outreach activities all can influence outcomes. Moving to a neutral central building attracted larger numbers and a greater diversity of service users as well as building trust with new service user groups, with drugs outreach staff further enhancing engagement with more marginalised drug using communities."

Measham F. (2020). City checking: Piloting the UK's first community-based drug safety testing (drug checking) service in 2 city centres. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 86(3), 420–428. doi.org/10.1111/bcp.14231