In Vancouver, Canada, street-sold pills purported to be Xanax contained synthetic cannabinoid ingredients, similar to the drugs K2 and Spice. As part of a harm reduction program, a testing site was able to flag the drugs and warn people who interact with street opioid users quickly of the danger via text message ising their RADAR bad drug alert system.

“Xanax pills tested at Insite contained AB-FUBINCA, a synthetic cannabinoid, alprazolam (Xanax) and caffeine. Check your drugs for free at any [overdose prevention site] or [supervised consumption site],” the text alert read.

The city recently deployed two machines to test illicit drugs, in hopes of preventing overdoses and saving the lives of addicted persons. While synthetic cannabinoids can have a few similar effects to cannabis when eaten or smoked, they are often much stronger and can cause dangerous side effects like heart palpitations, seizures, hallucinations and overdoses. For a person who has never tried the synthetic drug, the effects can be dangerous and alarming.

“People can feel nauseous and sweaty when they take it, but more importantly they can feel paranoid and get hallucinations and feel quite uncomfortable,” said Dr. Lysyshyn, who works at one of the drug testing centers. “It doesn’t usually kill people, but it can make them feel quite unwell.”

This is first time a synthetic cannabinoid has been discovered in a benzodiazepine drugs like Xanax, however it has also been found in a cocktail of opioids called “down.” It has also made its way into other street drugs, but officials aren’t sure why that is happening and if this is a trend that will continue across the country or into the US.

The machines that test the drugs, which cost $50,000 each, are Fourier-Transform infrared spectrometers at various facilities. They work quickly to determine the ingredients of a drug, and don’t destroy it during the process. Illicit drug users can ask for a test and get it free. Testing will determine contaminations and proportions of dangerous drugs additives such as fentanyl or carfentanil, the drugs most likely to cause deadly overdoses.

“We encourage people who use drugs to bring their drugs to these places, get them checked, and then they can make better decisions about how to use them safely,” said Lysyshyn.

While drug-testing machines are considered an important part of harm-reduction in Canada, in the United States there are no plans or measures promoting the method. Many law enforcement officers and other in government view harm-reduction as a means to encourage drug abuse, and are stongly against safe injection sites and other harm-reduction methods.