Anita Tibben-Wood is surprised by how receptive people have been to a mobilized drug-checking service that has been on Calgary's streets since August 2023.
"We've been most surprised by how accepting the community has been. I thought we would get a lot more hate than we have," she said.
"But we're constantly having people walk up to us and be really supportive and really excited about what we're doing. The opioid crisis has touched everybody. Like everybody knows somebody that it's affected. So we see a lot of parents coming up saying … 'I lost a child' or 'I've got somebody going through this and they're just so happy that this service exists.'"
Tibben-Wood is the Calgary drug checking manager with Alberta Alliance Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly (AAWEAR). It's an advocacy organization representing people who have experience with substance use.
Last year, the organization launched its pilot program, Drug Checkin YYC, in a bid to help people decode what's inside the drugs found on the streets.
According to Tibben-Wood, one of the major problems linked to the unregulated drug supply is that people often end up purchasing a product that "contains more than what it's sold as."
This makes testing a priority, especially for those who are at risk of drug poisoning.
"It's important to get it tested so you know what you're consuming. [It] just gives you peace of mind and the power to make an educated decision," Tibben-Wood said.
Focus on inclusivity
The group focuses on providing an inclusive, non-judgmental space for people from all backgrounds. The free service is fully confidential and offers a discreet, private space (a tent) for those who'd like to get drugs tested quickly and easily.
The group runs its testing service thrice a week — on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The group uses a device called a Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer during testing to determine what's in a product. The device has a limitation detection of five per cent.
"The FTIR works by shining infrared light through a substance," Tibben-Wood said. "The different frequencies give us like a fingerprint graph that's unique to that substance and we will compare that with spectrum samples to figure out what's exactly inside."
Drug Checkin YYC is the only mobilized drug-checking service of its kind in Western Canada. (Terri Trembath/CBC)
While AAWEAR also has chapters in Edmonton, Lethbridge and Red Deer, mobile drug testing has yet to catch up in other parts of Alberta.
Drug Checkin YYC is the only mobilized drug-checking service of its kind in Western Canada. Although the pilot project is coming to an end in March, the group is planning to expand its services to Edmonton this summer.
Program members perform detection tests as many as 10 times a day with an FTIR spectrometer as well as test strips to analyze drugs.
"We have moved towards more seeing poisoning instead of overdose because often people don't know what they're doing," Tibben-Wood said.
"People aren't intending on taking too much. They just don't even know what they're taking and how much is in it. They don't know the concentration."
Shelby Suazo, who is the provincial drug checking manager with AAWEAR, says the group is working on destigmatizing "people who use drugs or drug use in general."
"People could have different types of relationships with substances, and it doesn't make you a bad person if you decide to enjoy a substance, whether that's recreationally, medicinally or you're using it in a dependent way," she said.
"Because, in reality, life is hard and … we're here to provide some safety in our community for people who use drugs because we're in an unregulated drug supply that's very toxic and we deserve some sort of regulation."
Shelby Suazo, who is the provincial drug checking manager with AAWEAR, says it's difficult being on the front line and witnessing the opioid crisis up close. (Terri Trembath/CBC)
Suazo stressed that the group doesn't intend to promote or encourage substance use.
"We're here to say, 'hey, if you're going to do this, let's do it safely because we want you to make it home at the end of the day,'" she said.
She acknowledged that being on the front line and witnessing the opioid crisis up close is a multi-faceted experience.
"You can get into the community aspect, you can get into the personal aspect, you can get into the professional aspect, you know, the resource management aspect as well, too.… But if I need to sum it up into one word, it's been really, really hard."