"In an ideal world, what I offer as a service would not be a very busy place.”
Dana Larsen is talking about is his passion project called Get Your Drugs Tested, a service funded through The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary which in 20 months of operation has tested 10,000 illicit drugs.
Describing the service as being part of his ‘life’s mission’ for the last 30 years, Larsen has waged a war against the war on drugs. A war he states he believes is really a war on plants and plant medicines.
"To me, it's an important way of hoping drug users make informed decisions and keeping our community safe and encouraging the government to step up for it,” Larsen said in an interview with V.I.A. “I wish we didn't have to do it because I wish that drug users could buy or access their drugs at known dosages when they get them.”
What goes on at Get Your Drugs Tested
While Larsen acknowledged drug testing is available through B.C.'s provincial government, he believes his service, which is open from noon to 8 p.m. daily, is more accessible.
Each day the centre completes around 30 tests carried out by staff using an FTIR Spectrometer. The machine shines an infrared laser onto the sample, analyzes the reflected light, and identifies the substances in the sample. Using the spectrometer, samples of the drugs are not destroyed and can be given back to the customer. Test strips are also available which can test for even trace amounts of fentanyl or benzodiazepine, the drug used to make Xanax.
Larsen says the service’s popularity is picking up the more people hear about it, use it, and feel comfortable coming back. Larson adds that while the testing centre is being well-used by in-person visits, he wishes more people were using the mail-in test option saying only about 15 per cent of the samples are sent in my mail.
"It's just a big country, I feel that we could be getting more samples by mail than we are," Larsen said, explaining that out of the 10,000 samples tested, about 8,500 have been from Vancouver with about 500 coming from across British Columbia. A thousand more roughly have come from the rest of Canada.
‘A random soupy mix’
The results of each test are then posted to the testing centre’s website and can shine a small light on the inner workings of the drug trade. According to Larsen, pretty well every drug is cut with something but the centre does from time to time identify pure samples of cocaine, MDMA and LSD.
"The most common thing in all of our tests is caffeine," Larsen said. "We find it combined with cocaine, with MDMA, with fentanyl, with heroin, it's an extremely common cutting agent."
Larsen explained the addition of caffeine into cocaine makes sense as it gives a similar stimulating effect. The inclusion of caffeine into opiates like heroin and fentanyl Larsen speculates is to counteract the sleepiness opiates give the user.
Although Larsen says that only roughly one per cent of the MDMA and cocaine samples have had fentanyl in them, it’s still a big deal.
"If one per cent of the alcohol or marijuana had fentanyl in it that would be a huge problem,” he said. "If you're a regular user your odds are pretty good at any given one that you're going to be fine but you're rolling those dice every time."
From the results of the tests, Larsen says that about half the time people who are trying to buy heroin end up with fentanyl. Those who are trying to buy fentanyl could end up buying a deadly dose of benzodiazepine.
The tests have also found that Viagra and methamphetamine are sometimes put into MDMA 'mixes,' a combination that simulates some of the effects of MDMA.
"The drug supply in some way is kind of a random soupy mix of all different kinds of things being put together,” Larsen said. “Some people have access to good clean drugs other people do not."
Larsen added that while the centre does not ask many questions of the people getting their drugs tested, he said if the centre receives a dozen samples or more it is usually safe to assume they are checking the drug’s purity prior to making a deal.
"That's either a real connoisseur, or that's somebody who's in the middle of a supply chain," Larsen said.
Making testing centres obsolete
To make drug testing a more widespread and accepted practice, Larsen hopes to make it as convenient and as accessible as possible
"In my ideal world there would be legal access for adults to purchase ecstasy and mushrooms and cannabis and alcohol and opium and opium tea and heroin if they want to," he said.
Before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck, Larsen said he planned on doing a national tour with the FTIR Spectrometer, testing drugs across Canada to raise awareness and purvey the machine’s abilities. He claims if the machines were more widely used, say by provincial governments, the machines would more than pay for themselves in preventing overdose deaths.
Finally, Larsen pointed out that drugs, their impurities, and the laws surrounding their prohibition, are not problems found just in British Columbia.
"This is an international issue,” Larsen said. “I think that when done properly Vancouver and British Columbia and Canada can lead the world in a real proper drug-checking program and I think we're going to try and make that happen."