COLLINS MAINA — The Gateway (University of Alberta)
EDMONTON — With the number of deaths linked to party drugs on the rise, a group of University of Alberta researchers are looking to provide further insight about their chemical composition.
Alan Hudson, a pharmacologist in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, said the project aims to test samples collected by the Edmonton Police Service in order to understand the substances that drugs, such as MDMA, are being laced with.
In the last year, Alberta Health Services’ Poison and Drug Information Services (PADIS) received 33 calls across Alberta about MDMA. Of those calls, 17 were actively managed in Alberta hospitals while five were instructed to proceed to emergency.
“There’s this perception as if no one is taking drugs, but there is a problem with ecstasy and contaminated drugs,” he said.
Rather than criminalizing people, Hudson said the project focuses on harm reduction and keeping users informed about the substances they are taking. He added that by providing rapid testing of the samples, both EPS and emergency room physicians would know more about what is out on the streets.
“After testing, EPS could put out warnings to people in emergency medicine to look out for patients coming in with these drugs in their system,” Hudson said.
This rapid testing could be done anywhere in a day or two with samples on-hand, he noted. The initiative’s idea was suggested two years ago, and despite being unable to secure funding for it, the researchers are still looking for ways to set up a pilot program.
Department of Educational Policy Studies assistant professor Kristopher Wells said they plan to do more than testing, as the project will also educate people about the harms of using these potentially contaminated substances.
“We’re trying to develop a project where we can do real-time testing to engage a real-time response,” he said. “The message is that any time you take illegal substances you are at risk.”
In addition to rapid testing, the project would help in the development of treatment protocols to ensure that emergency room physicians will know the best available treatments — potentially saving the lives of patients who have overdosed on tainted substances.
“The risk with these drugs and contaminants is that one never knows how their own body or genetic make up is going to process the drugs,” Wells said. “We have seen devastating impacts on particularly university age students, young people and families.”
Hudson said one of the contaminants found in “Blue Dolphin,” a drug sold as ecstasy, increases blood pressure and could potentially cause a heart attack in users with heart problems. The unknown adverse effects of contaminants in the drugs prove to be a public health risk, as many of these drugs are not found in their pure form, which is more expensive to make. The danger with many of these drugs is that people don’t know what they’re taking, Hudson said.
Wells said this research is especially important since Canada produces one of the highest volumes of MDMA-like substances in the world.
“We know they are out there and we don’t know what they contain, but we do know that there seems to be an increasing public health risk,” he said.
With the number of recent deaths linked to the use of these substances, Wells stressed the importance of awareness around the risks of using these substances. Working with EPS could provide institutional support in reducing this public concern, he added.
“Information and knowledge is power; that is what we’re aiming for.”