My experience with drug checking, harm reduction and socially conscious science
Reprinted from the How’s Work? Life in the Workplace issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (3), pp. 30-31
I didn’t know what to expect the first time I stepped into the retrofitted bar of the old hotel. It was my first day on shift with the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project, also known around the city as Substance UVic. British Columbia is bearing the brunt of Canada’s opioid epidemic, in big cities and small communities alike. This project has been supporting residents of Victoria since 2018.
Around me was a large room with little tables lining the perimeter. Women with lanyards were handing out injection supplies, smoking supplies and hot chocolate. The lanyard women looked knowledgeable; they were harm reduction workers from AVI Health and Community Services, a partner agency on our project. We were sharing their space. A large window ran along the wall with a view of a walled-off makeshift supervised consumption site. It was January in Victoria and a heater kept the outdoor space tolerable. There was laughter and snacks, and occasional vitals checks on individuals slumped in the consumption area.
Behind a divider in the back corner of the room were the people I’d be working with. I took my place between a veteran technician-slash-resident pharmacist on the project and a graduate student in social work whose rapid-fire banter provided an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge on everything from social theory to Indigenous learning styles, all in our first conversation. The atmosphere in the room was warm, welcoming and familiar.
Harm reduction and health promotion have consistently been shown to be more effective in the prevention of overdose deaths than harsh drug charges and anti-drug moralization. The project is one among many similar initiatives around the world serving an evolving substance use landscape. Substance UVic provides safe, confidential and free-of-charge drug checking to anyone who walks through our door or sends their substances to us by mail. As a research collaboration between the Department of Chemistry and the School of Social Work at the University of Victoria, we are a team of social workers, chemists, pharmacists, computer scientists, public health professionals, people who use drugs and students who are dedicated to providing this drug checking service in our community while collecting valuable and understudied data.
This project is perhaps among the most unique interdisciplinary research environments in the world; certainly the most unique research environment I’ve ever been part of. Since the project's inception in 2018, we have travelled to safe injection sites across the city of Victoria and, more recently, up the island to other cities and towns.
We also have our very own storefront now! We reside in a cozy one-room space on the corner of Cook Street and North Park, sandwiched between two other harm reduction providers in the city. Our space is an eclectic mix of mismatched furniture, thrifted lamps and laboratory equipment. An analytical balance (for measuring small masses) sits amidst house plants—coffee shop meets research lab. People stop in to drop off a sample, chat, ask questions and get support; some just want a juice box. We average ten samples per day.
When someone comes to get their substances checked, they get asked a list of questions about their sample. Which substance is this? Are you getting this checked for yourself or for someone else? Have you experienced anything unusual using this substance? We collect this anonymous data to shape and inform our understanding of substance use in the community as well as the diverse demographics and perspectives of people who interact with our service.
During sample analysis we collect little bits of information from three different instruments, which the technician pieces together like a puzzle for the service user. Alone, each test cannot give a full understanding of the composition of the substance sample. It is my job, and that of the other technicians, to give our best interpretation of what we see in each chemical signature using computer software to help us. I really love my job.
To those who ask, we hand out harm reduction supplies, including glass pipes, syringes, fentanyl test strips, naloxone kits and drug interaction charts. People from all walks of life come to have their substances assessed by us, from timid teenagers and party-goers to people who sell drugs and weekly regulars; they are all welcome.
Activist is the last word I would use to describe myself. I’ve never stood on a picket line or protested anything, although many members on the project are more active in these respects. This work, however, feels important, a little bit political and personal. I’ve lost friends to drug overdose. Many people whom I considered family growing up in and out of the child welfare system have lost their battles with addiction. Drug checking feels like a fresh, exciting and meaningful answer to local substance use concerns that also challenges the stuffy biomedical model of addiction.
It feels like through our work we are asserting a harm reduction and anti-marginalization stance—one sample at a time. Likewise, we are collecting important data and developing technologies that we and other future drug checking projects will benefit from. I can’t put into words exactly why I positioned myself behind our instruments that first day; there are too many reasons. However, the work I do on the project feels like a personal revolt, albeit a quiet one, against the stigma and meanness tied into social perceptions of drug use.
I have been granted an enormous opportunity to be part of this team, part of this movement and part of this shifting momentum. I continue to be inspired by my amazing, genial and phenomenal co-workers, whom I aspire to be more like. I am grateful for the trust that our community puts in us and the meaningful relationships we get to build because of that.
Stop by our location to get your sample checked out, or for a juice box and a chat. We’re on Cook Street. It’s a storefront named Substance.
About the author
Ren is a drug checking technician, research assistant on the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project and University of Victoria graduate student. Her personal and academic background has led to her eclectic expertise in pharmacology and analytical chemistry, as well as her interest harm reduction