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Portable drug-testing ‘robot’ heading to Shambhala Music Festival

The team’s prototype aims to identify, quantify expected substances, like fentanyl, in 15 minutes
Setting up a prototype drug tester at Shambhala Music Festival. University of British Columbia researchers from the chemistry department are bringing a portable drug-testing robot to Shambhala Music Festival in Salmo to give festival-goers a chance to have their drugs tested in about 15 minutes. (Hein Lab)

A prototype for a drug-testing ‘robot’ is heading to a music festival this weekend, and the team behind it says this could be a game changer for the province’s toxic drug poisonings.

UBC chemistry department researchers are bringing a portable drug-testing robot to Shambhala Music Festival in Salmo to give festival-goers a chance to have their drugs tested in about 15 minutes.

Jason Hein, an associate professor in the department, said Shambhala is a field trial for both the robot and the team as it’s the first time it’s being tested out in the public. The AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society, which focuses on harm reduction, invited them.

READ MORE: B.C. music festival visitors more likely to use drug-checking services: Interior Health

Hein explained that the robot, which uses high-performance liquid chromatography, is basically the expert technician.

“You drop off a powder, it does the weighing, it does the dissolution, it does all the corrections it needs to do to get the sample ready for injecting. It runs the sample and then it actually interprets the data and gives you back a result.”

The team will then compare those results with traditional testing methods. The researchers will also test the prototype’s portability and automation to see how it can be improved.

But the hope is this could one day be a fully automated kiosk in communities.

“If the robot’s working fine, somebody could just walk up to it, no person is there, you drop off your sample, push go, you get a result and you don’t have to wait until the clinic is open, you don’t have to wait,” explained Hein.

Currently there is a drop box outside the department at UBC with a one-day turnaround.

Hein said they’ve been doing this work for the last year, and while it’s rare, they have managed to find fentanyl or carfentanil that might have previously gone undetected. All that’s needed is about 10 milligrams.

“If somebody submits something and says, ‘this is what I bought. I think I’m going to use it,’ and it’s either nothing of what they thought it was or it’s got something else in it. It’s rare that we do still catch those but longer-term it’s just a matter of information is really the powerful point here and it just sucks that nobody has that access.”

READ MORE: New device that tests drugs in minutes boosted by province amid B.C.’s overdose crisis

It comes as the province reported 184 people died in the B.C. in June due to the toxic and unregulated drug supply. More than 1,200 people have died in the first half of the year.

Fentanyl was detected in more than 90 per cent of expedited testing in June.

READ MORE: BC Coroners Service blames illicit drug supply for 184 deaths in June


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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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