Ottawa

What's really in Ottawa street drugs? New machines will find out

Ottawa Public Health is buying new machines to test illicit drugs being used at supervised injection sites, and plans to tell people what they find using an online dashboard.

'I think it's important for people to know what is out there'

A syringe.
New drug testing machines will operate at four supervised injection sites in Ottawa. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is planning to post the results of drug tests at supervised injection sites online to give residents a clearer picture of what's in the city's illicit drug supply.

The data will come from four new drug-testing machines. OPH is buying two that will complement two others obtained through a provincial research initiative.

All four will be housed at facilities with what OPH calls consumption and treatment services centres, more commonly known as supervised injection sites.

Ottawa Inner City Health, which operates at the Shepherds of Good Hope, recently launched its testing service, and Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has just followed with its new detection machine.

OPH plans to use one at its own ByWard Market facility and provide another to Somerset West Community Health Centre. They're expected to be in operation by the end of the year, according to OPH staff.

'Shown ... to change people's behaviour'

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said accurate information about what's in drugs can help people make better decisions.

"It actually is shown, in other places where they use drug-checking, to change people's behaviour, to help people go slower on what they're using or decide they're not going to use that," she said.

"It is complex these days. What's in the drug supply is very unknown and as we're seeing it can be deadly, even one use."

A health official in a mask speaks into a microphone.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, at a news conference on Nov. 23, 2022. She says data from the testing machines will help people make more informed choices. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Sandy Hill Community Health Centre first began using a mass spectrometer to test drugs at its supervised injection site years ago, but Etches said that machine was finicky.

She said the new machines will do more than save lives, they'll also provide broad-based information that can inform the entire community.

OPH is planning to post some of the information publicly on its online Mental Health, Addictions and Substance Use Health Dashboard.

'May have other substances'

Kira Mandryk, program manager of sexual health and harm reduction services at OPH, explained how it would work: OPH would log what drugs people think they've bought and compare it to what the detection machines actually find.

"We'll be able to show that somebody may come into this service saying that they've purchased cocaine, and they're using it in the consumption site, but then when we check it, it may have other substances," she said.

She said the machines have a "huge library of substances" they can detect. According to Mandryk, the data would come from all four machines, combining information from OPH and its partners, to give a global picture of the unregulated drug supply in Ottawa.

She said that has a clear public health benefit.

"I think it's important for people to know what is out there in the unregulated drug supply so that they're able to make informed decisions about their use and the risk level of that use, in the overdose that could happen," she said.

A city councillor listens at his council seat.
Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, seen here in a meeting in October 2022, says the drug crisis has been getting worse, not better. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

49 people died of overdoses in 3 months

Information about the new detection machines came during a board of health meeting Monday, where a long list of speakers warned about the scale of the city's opioid and overdose crisis.

In the first three months of this year, 49 people died of overdoses, according to Ottawa Public Health data. More recent figures for emergency room visits suggest the crisis is continuing, with May and July having the most emergency room visits for opioid overdoses so far this year, with 135 in each of those months.

"We're seeing things getting worse, not better," said Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, a member of the board.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante said the problem "has tentacles that no one really understands the magnitude and complexity" of. 

Plante said her office has been flooded with emails over the issue. She called for better data, more collaboration and ambitious targets.

A politician in a coat listens during an outdoor news conference.
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante, seen here in March, says people don't really understand the 'magnitude and complexity' of the city's drug problem. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

OD prevention task force needs new members: Etches

Alta Vista Coun. Marty Carr moved a motion directing OPH to increase public awareness, improve data sharing and further develop its multi-sector overdose strategy to respond to the drug overdose crisis. 

Etches said she took from the meeting that many are concerned "strategies aren't connected and it's not clear what's being done."

She foresees work to strengthen an overdose prevention and response task force, saying there's a need to "reinvigorate" it and bring on new members.

OPH is planning to make data from four new drug testing machines at local supervised consumption sites available online. Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has just started using one of those machines this week.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Arthur White-Crummey is a reporter at CBC Ottawa. He has previously worked as a reporter in Saskatchewan covering the courts, city hall and the provincial legislature. You can reach him at arthur.white-crummey@cbc.ca.