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Drug-testing kits have limitations, but can help prevent deaths: advocates

TORONTO - Drug-testing kits currently available in Canada have limitations, but they can be part of the solution to help prevent unnecessary deaths at live concerts such as Toronto's Veld music festival, where two people died earlier this month after taking what's believed to be party drugs, says a harm-reduction group.

Toronto's Trip Project says the testing kits, when combined with other strategies like drug education, could make drug use safer for people who will not abstain from risky behaviour.

"People die at music festivals. That's not a thing that we should just accept," said Lori Kufner, a co-ordinator with the city-funded organization.

Kufner said that testing kits for synthetic so-called "party" drugs may be a way of reducing risks, but they aren't widely used and some people who take drugs don't even know they're available.

"There's a lot of other drugs that are being created and sold and passed off as other substances. Buying street drugs, you never really know what it is," she said.

"If you test it for something and it ends up being something that you didn't think it was going to be, you can still make an informed decision of whether to toss it or do it anyway."

Health Canada says all synthetic club drugs are considered equally harmful and are unsafe even in so-called "pure" forms.

Police are still trying to determine what drugs may have been consumed by a 20-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man who died, and 13 others who were sickened at the Veld Music Festival in Toronto's Downsview Park. Police said all 15 people ingested what they believe was a party drug purchased at the festival.

Adrienne Smith, a staff lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, said that simply condemning the use of illegal drugs is not a solution.

"Currently illicit drug use is happening at parties. What we do about that is the important question," she said.

"What the harm-reduction community has decided to do is to acknowledge that it's happening and to address some of the harms so that people don't die," she said.

But drug-test kits remain "under the radar," said Karim Rifaat, the owner of Test Kit Plus, a Montreal company that sells the kits online.

"A lot of people who like to use drugs recreationally don't even know that it's possible to test them," he said.

He stressed that the kits are not 100 per cent accurate.

"It's not as good as sending it to a lab," he said, but they allow people to get an overall idea of the constituents of a capsule, tablet, or powder drug sample.

"If you have no idea what's in your tablet and you just take it, that's probably one of the worst things you can do," he said.

Testing a substance, Kufner said, requires mixing a single drop of chemical reagent with a sample of the party drug (usually a scraping of powder the size of the tip of a pen) on a glass or ceramic plate, and comparing the colour of the reaction to a chart.

Andrew Jolie, an electronic music enthusiast, said he has seen people use test kits in Miami, but not in Canada.

"Generally, they turn different colours for different substances. The ones I've seen, for (popular club drug) MDMA it would turn a dark blue and for speed or cocaine or some other kind of amphetamine, it would turn green or yellow," he said.

"You see the colour right away. If it's bright, dark blue, then you might not need to test it again. If it has some discolouration or something else in it, then you might want to give it another test."

The kits are available for sale online and cost about $25. Rifaat said Test Kit Plus has been selling them for about a year, and awareness — and business — is "growing."

Test kits may reduce harm, said Kufner, but there are still limitations to their efficacy and barriers to use.

Kufner said the Trip Project can't test drugs on site, as it could be considered trafficking and get the group in trouble with the law. And the kits aren't necessarily convenient. The reagents are "somewhat corrosive," said Kufner, and people must care for them properly to avoid spoilage.

Rifaat says it's better to use various reagents, which would also make the process more intensive.

All told, Jolie said, testing drugs is "really tough to do when you're actually out at these festivals."

"Even if you had a test kit on you, that would mean you would have to sit down somewhere, you would have to find a flat surface, you know, break out all these vials. And that's sketchy enough on its own, right? Especially in a club environment, you'd get kicked out instantly for that."

The RCMP said that while testing kits are not illegal, they could indicate to an officer that someone is carrying a controlled substance.

Det. Jeffrey Ross of the Toronto Drug Squad said he understands how testing kits might be perceived as useful, but expressed concern at the number of substances in their blind spots. He said testing kits could give drug users a false impression of safety.

In this consumer market in particular, he said, it's "buyer beware."

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