The Opiate Overdose Crisis: An Experiment in Vancouver Suggests a New Approach

Across North America, first responders and hospitals report a deluge of overdoses among heroin users whose drugs are mixed with fentanyl, a strong synthetic opiate or the even more powerful carfentanil, which is used in veterinary anesthesia. Word from Vancouver is that public health workers have used a reagent test for the presence of fentanyl in other street drugs for the clients that they serve.

In addition to the dangers posed by heroin itself, these additives make street doses unpredictable in strength.  By volume, the synthetics are much more powerful, and street users depend upon illicit manufacturers and distributors to supply semi-predictable products. Although many street users now expect that the heroin they buy (and sometimes, the cocaine) will contain synthetics, they also have little or no way to know how carefully compounded these drugs are. Judging from the rapid rise in overdoses in recent weeks, the answer is that dosage chaos reigns.

Why Vancouver first? First, British Columbia is treating it as the emergency it is. It declared it as such in April 2016, with the CBC reporting that by June, 71 overdose deaths had taken place and 60% involved fentanyl.  But uniquely, the city has a government-funded organization called Insite, a supervised injection site for drug users. Nurses and other clinic workers staff the place, and it is the only program like it right now in North America. Insite also has some health care services, provides clean needles and can respond to overdoses on site.

Drug users bring in their own drugs, and they are free from the risk of arrest while they are there. This also provides an opportunity for drug testing. Consumers of the drugs can learn about the composition of the drugs they are about to inject, while the clinic can gain information about, and report on, trends in purity and composition of street drugs.

Which brings us to the potential of fentanyl test strips. Francine Diep reports in Pacific Standard magazine that fentanyl testing may – emphasis on may – provide some benefit to drug users by detecting its presence. Insite ran a pilot testing program this summer, using the strips for a month on as many samples as they could. 90% of the heroin samples contained fentanyl, and some of the cocaine samples did, as well.

There are two key issues here. First – how accurate the tests are from a strictly scientific viewpoint: what are the rates of type I and II errors, and what is the specificity to the problem of an adulterant like fentanyl as opposed to cross-reactions to other less deadly ingredients? The strips were originally designed to test urine, and in lab settings it has a 6% false positive rate and a 0% false negative rate. Most of the medical consultants on Insite’s project felt that it might do just as well in water-dissolved samples at the clinic. In the abstract, the low false negative rate is good news. The test strip doesn’t react to carfentanil, however.

It should be kept in mind that some users actively seek out synthetic opiate pills, either preferring them to injecting heroin or using them as a bridge at times when heroin is hard to come by.  People who buy hydrocodone illegally may be getting fentanyl instead, or a mixture, and again, the unexpected strength can be deadly. It appears that fentanyl in a hydrocodone preparation is what killed legendary musician Prince at age 57 in Minnesota this past spring.

Also, to what extent does a positive result for fentanyl discourage a user from injecting the drugs? Diep notes that few people at the Vancouver site seem willing to throw away contaminated drugs altogether. But staffers suggest they may be willing to lower their intake if they know the powerful synthetic is present.  The clinic reports that 86% of the drug samples they tested contained some fentanyl, which implies that at least for the population that uses that clinic, it may be hard to avoid.

Fentanyl is now everywhere. It can be purchased on cryptomarkets online, where either tablets or ingredients can be obtained. Making it is not that difficult, and mid-level distributors can move into manufacture. It can also be diverted from legitimate medical use, as it is often prescribed to people with cancer.

Similar ideas for other cities have been stymied by an insistence on abstinence and prohibition-based approaches and legislation which inhibits or quashes altogether such harm-reduction opportunities, in both Canada in the US. The only recent harm-reduction initiative that hasn’t been aggressively and routinely blocked is overdose-reversal medication like naloxone, which many communities distribute to first responders or make available to the public by prescription.

But as synthetic mixes hit the streets, naloxone is less effective. Reports from Indiana suggest that when carfentanil is present, even five or six doses of naloxone may not reverse the effect. Carfentanil is also powdery and light, posing risks to police and EMTs who respond to places where the drug is present just by touching or inhaling it, in a similar way that methamphetamine making can expose others to risk.

So, the way to think of the new synthetic adulterant problem is: a mess we don’t know how to handle, situated on top of a mess that we do know more about than we are willing to do.  You’d think decades of a failed War on Drugs – drugs won, in case you haven’t been keeping up – would demonstrate the need for greater humility and innovation in policy making. The pilot project in Vancouver can save lives and prevent injury, and similar programs could also tell us a great deal about drug adulteration, and how best to protect public health.

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Like Many Things, the Promise of Light and Portable Drug Testing Depends Entirely on Context

images-pills-modern-cover-photo-fbI noted in my last blog entry on the dubious technology “drink spiking detection” devices — such as coasters, test cards, and other reagent-coated bar ware — that both false positives and false negatives are too high to make the technology useful. I also suggested that if such user-end technology — thus far deployed without much real consumer interest — were to become more popular, the imprecision associated with such products could instill a dangerous reassurance to people situationally suspicious enough to test their drinks, while creating undue fear, accusations, and other kinds of serious ramifications in the case of false positives.

But in another realm, there’s already a darker side to false positives in quick field tests. Nationwide concern in the US is beginning to pick up about the sometimes life-altering problems associated with inaccurate or inconclusive field tests used by law enforcement agencies. Field testing technology for drugs on the scene (say, at a vehicle stop) hasn’t developed much since its inception in the 1970s; it appears that what is new is the recognition that cross-reactions with any number of other ordinary chemicals and compounds produce unacceptably high levels of false positives. The New York Times Magazine reported in July that widely deployed reagent field tests have routinely produced false positives for methamphetamine and cocaine. But enter “field drug test” or “drink detector” into a search engine on line, and you’ll find little recognition of the cross-reaction problems that have been known for years.

Furthermore, the necessary visual interpretation of chemical testing results (it turned blue, it turned sort of blue, it turned light blue…) remains a key moment in decision-making in forensic detection and is fraught with the tendency to over-certainty and over-confidence.  This problem has been well-known since the most rudimentary lab techniques were developed in the early 1900s, and remains a problem for cheap, easy field deployables. The cobalt thiocyanate tests used to test for cocaine, for instance, will also turn blue with a number of over-the-counter medicines and cleaning products.

Technically, in order for a positive field test to lead to criminal conviction, it has to be confirmed in a lab by more precise tests. But circumstances rule. Most people arrested for drugs don’t have access to private lawyers or even readily available bail or bond money, and pleas before confirmation are the norm.  Some period of incarceration may ensue anyway, just enough to disrupt the stability of more vulnerable citizens. The Times article chronicles the downfall of a Louisiana woman arrested in Houston and saddled with a felony conviction for crack cocaine, which turned out to be a fragment of the over-the-counter aspirin and caffeine pill that she insisted it was. Having lost her steady home and job as a result, she didn’t even realize that she’d been part of a wave of similar exonerations until the Times informed her, years later.

But on-site drug testing can be used by consumers of drugs, as well. In a different context, the technology, even with its flaws, can prevent harm rather than inflict it. There is a well-functioning model out there – and it comes from the rave scene. In rave and electronic music settings, there’s actually a solid network of nonprofit drug testing that can analyze drugs on the spot. The DanceSafe outfit is probably the best known of these harm reduction groups, but the technology to provide such a service is widespread. MDMA, commonly known as Molly or Ecstasy, is one of the more widely adulterated illicit drugs. On August 3, Lauren Frayer reported on NPR’s All Things Considered radio show that on-site testing had been arranged for a larger music festival in the UK. Due in great part to advocacy on the part of researcher Fiona Measham of Durham University, a legal path has been cleared for the process, to encourage event goers to subject their drugs to testing. In the process, they can discuss the results with a trained counselor. In the US, DanceSafe sells testing kits to consumers, but can’t provide on-site testing and counsel due to risk of attendees’ arrests. (This organization and others are advocating for legal and enforcement-practice reform that would enable this service in the US.)

Online drug commerce has advanced the prospect of user-initiated testing, as well. A firm called Energy Control in Barcelona tests any drug sent to it and provides a report. It now receives government support in the interest of harm reduction, although it started out with a single doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who posted to the now-defunct Silk Road darknet platform, offering testing and advice. The testing is highly precise but not immediate – with at least a few days’ turnaround time. The company takes Bitcoin payments to enhance anonymity.

A number of drug cryptomarkets have emerged in the wake of Silk Road’s closure in 2013, when it was seized by the FBI as part of the indictment of its founder, Ross Ulbricht. The market for online illicit drug transactions is growing rapidly, according to a newly-released RAND report.

So you can assume that there is a latent demand for user-end testing products, for people that use drugs voluntarily, and have the resources to buy them discreetly. People who purchase drugs in hand-to-hand transactions aren’t the same as those who buy on line. It’s unclear whether this sort of simple re-agent technology would be used widely by those who purchase street drugs.  Energy Control reported that cocaine was much purer in online samples than street ones, suggesting that a bifurcated market remains — starkly by economic resources — and perhaps also the interest in drug content verification. In any case, having users make contact with neutral testers and advice-givers seems all to the good, in terms of enhancing public health and at the same time adding to the research body of knowledge about illicit drug trends. Increasing awareness of the fallibility of light-and-portable tests — and resisting the “gee whiz” style of reporting on technology — also seems useful to everyone.