Street Drugs: The Machine that Saves Lives

By Colin McGregor

Drugs are cut and mixed with each other. How do you know if the drugs you are using contain a lethal mixture?

It is close to midnight Saturday, and a black van parks outside an art and film show, part of Festival International du Film sur l’Art, on the campus of UQAM in downtown Montreal. Young, chic, artsy people file into the building, passing by the GRIP van on their way. A cold breeze cuts through the night as three GRIP personnel set up a $40,000 machine designed to analyze drugs to see if they’ve been “cut”. Their mission – to save lives.

GRIP – Groupe de recherche et d’intervention psychosociale – has been in existence for 25 years, but they’ve only had their Bruker Alpha 2 spectrometer, a machine smaller than a printer, for about a year. They travel through the night, advertising where they’ll be in advance on their website, to make drug consumption safer for those who will do so anyway. The goal: harm reduction.

Kathryn Balind is a research and development agent for GRIP, and she is along for the ride on this night. She explains to me how the spectrometer works: “It can take 15 minutes to test one substance, or an hour of the person wants to sit and talk about things and there’s no one waiting.” Intervention being one of their goals, they enjoy sitting and talking with people to inform them of their choices and learn from others.

Kathryn Balind in front of the GRIP van, Saturday night, downtown Montreal

The machine needs very little of a drug, and the consumers get their drug back.

GRIP has an entente à l’amiable avec la police. They don’t wait outside the van to arrest people. The police understand that GRIP is there to help.

They are part of a “community of sharing,” Balind tells me. They share with Montreal-area drug counselling organizations, as well as with national and international organizations, to obtain the best analysis methods. The fentanyl overdose problems kills far more people in B.C than anywhere else in Canada, so Balind tells me that west coast organizations “shed light on our blind spots.” The BCCSU, the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, is a huge information resource for Balind.  

With her master’s degree in chemistry, it is she who trains the other GRIP personnel as well as intervenors across Montreal on how to use the machine, free of charge. “It is super accessible, easy to transport, and easy to use even form people who don’t have a chemistry background,” says Balind of her spectrometer.

To even get the spectrometer entails a long accreditation process by Santé Canada. There are less than a dozen in the whole province of Quebec. GRIP has two, which they have named after the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. On this Saturday night they are out with Mary-Kate. Stickers of Mary-Kate’s face stare up from the various pieces of equipment. They are also hooked up to the Internet, for data gathering and to look up results they don’t understand.  

And the purity of drugs is a big issue on the street. “Polysubstance” consumption – consuming two or more substances at the same time – has been responsible for most overdose deaths.

According to Health Canada, a total of 32,632 apparent opioid poisoning deaths were recorded between January 2016 and June 2022. Most apparent opioid poisoning deaths are among young and middle-aged men.

The number of deaths apparently linked to stimulant poisoning during the pandemic has been high. At the height of the pandemic that amounted to 20 deaths a day. Almost all of these deaths (98%) were accidental. 76% involved fentanyl, 64% involved cocaine and 51% involved methamphetamines.

There are many reasons dealers cut their drugs. Dealers who are just starting to sell a product can use “the cut” to intensify the high so that customers buy from them. Once addicted, dealers cut with less potent substances so that customers get less effect from one dose than before, forcing them to buy more from dealers to get the same effect.

“The Cut” also happens during times when less drugs are available from suppliers, due to interception and seizure at border crossings or other causes. This allows dealers to continue selling until their supplies are restored.

The GRIP people set up a sandwich board sign outside the art event. It says:






I ask why there are fewer overdose fatalities in Quebec than in Ontario or B.C. Balind tells me that there may be some underreporting involved, because Quebec hospitals don’t have the same quality of testing equipment that Ontario and B.C. hospitals have. Even their machine, Mary-Kate, has blind spots – substances under 5% don’t get registered, so they supplement the machine testing with test strips for fentanyl and benzodiazepine. The supply of drugs in Quebec has something to do with it to, she tells me. There is less supply of fentanyl here than in Ontario. But “What happens in Ontario usually follows us later,” so we can expect more overdoses in the months and years to come, a prediction seconded by another drug counsellor.

A first nations man comes to the van to chat. “We really need this on the reserves, like Maniwaki,” he says. “The overdose rate is very high where I come from.” They chat for several minutes about drug issues, and he takes cards with the group’s coordinates. Then he goes off into the night, untested.

Just afterward a tall, dapper couple in their twenties comes by. They ask what the van is all about. Once they learn, they say they want their drugs tested. They enter the van and the rear doors close.  “Confidentiality,” Kathryn explains.

The GRIP van will stay outside the art event until 3 a.m., helping all who come by.  

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