Project targets illicit drug use and harm reduction
Around nine million people aged 14 and over in Australia had illicitly used an illicit drug at some point in their life and around 3.4 million people had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months, according to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS).
Last week, in Sydney, one person died and two were taken to hospital due to heroin overdose, after using what they thought was cocaine. Drugs that are contaminated or substituted with an unexpected substance are a leading cause of death among people who use drugs.
Portable testing device
University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Centre for Forensic Science PhD candidate Harry Fursman aims to tackle this significant risk by providing objective insights into current trends and consumption habits among people who are injecting drugs.
Fursman is testing a small, handheld, near-infrared device known as the MicroNIR, which can rapidly and accurately identify and quantify suspected drug specimens. He wants to test this technology in Australian contexts, as well as assess its usability, costs and accuracy for operational implementation.
Fursman will present his research on substance testing at the upcoming International Association of Forensic Sciences (IAFS) conference in Sydney on 20–24 November.
“Initially we had to optimise its use within Australia as it’s based on machine learning models trained with drugs of different chemical compositions than we typically see here,” Fursman said.
“We found that it is very accurate. It correctly predicts the identity of suspected drugs over 95% of the time and the purity estimates obtained are also quite accurate.
“It is able to collect this highly accurate data not only by direct contact with a small amount of the substance but also by scanning through a plastic bag or glass container. This means we can help minimise risk to the person testing the drugs.”
The MicroNIR is already in use in a number of countries. Fursman hopes to see it adopted in Australia, not only for policing but also at drug testing services for supervised injecting facilities, music festivals and clubs.
In addition to testing the MicroNIR device, Fursman is conducting ongoing chemical analyses of used syringes at the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC). The aim is to understand if people are injecting what they believe they are and to identify trends in injected substances over time.
“While most people are injecting what they think they are injecting (primarily heroin and methamphetamine), unexpected instances, like ketamine as a substitute for methamphetamine, underscore the need for vigilance and reliable testing methods.
“We’ve also found that in general there are not too many instances of heavily cut substances or multiple drugs injected at once,” Fursman said.
Fursman’s research aims to address a critical issue affecting people who use drugs, health professionals and policymakers.
The MicroNIR’s potential integration into frontline policing and healthcare settings hopes to provide greater efficiency, safety and decision-making in the fight against drug-related harm.
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