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Highly addictive methamphetamine is infiltrating the drug supply, leaving unsuspecting users at risk of a dangerous high. But educators and health professionals are taking steps to save lives

In a small room in a Winnipeg nightclub normally reserved for musicians and DJs, a group of volunteer nurses and medical professionals staff a makeshift chemistry lab as music blares from the rave downstairs. A woman in her 20s hands over a clear capsule filled with grainy, white powder, which she was told was the popular party drug MDMA.

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” says Project Safe Audience’s Jason Zweiban, an addictions support worker, before dripping reagent formulas onto the grains, watching carefully for colour changes that signal the presence of substances such as bath salts, opioids or the one the woman seems to fear most – methamphetamine.

She has reason to be nervous. Winnipeg is at the the centre of an unprecedented spike in the proliferation and use of meth, a highly addictive, powerful psychostimulant known for its long-lasting high and its devastating comedown. Raves such as this one on a recent Saturday night are a microcosm of a problem that’s gripped the Prairies: Meth has crept into the region and infiltrated the drug supply, putting unsuspecting users at risk and further paralyzing an already overwhelmed public service. The problem was highlighted in this week’s federal budget, which referenced a tri-level task force that will release recommendations this June on how to curtail the spiralling problem of illicit drug use in Manitoba.

Six years ago, there was an average of 15 emergency-room visits a month in Winnipeg related to meth. In 2018, that figure had increased to 207, according to statistics from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. In 2014, 3 per cent of adults and 1 per cent of youths seeking services from the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba said meth was their primary presenting issue; this year, those figures have jumped to 10 per cent and 6 per cent. Aside from alcohol, meth – whose high can last as long as 12 hours – is the drug Manitobans seek help for most.

Other Prairie cities have seen similar spikes. In 2011, according to Saskatoon Health Authority data, 182 clients reported crystal-meth use in the previous year. In 2018, nearly 1,187 did – a 552-per-cent increase. This year, it’s projected that 45 per cent of adults admitted to addictions programs in the city will report crystal-meth usage, up from 5 per cent a decade ago.

The Winnipeg Police Service says the uptick has occurred largely due to simple economics. In only two years, the peak street value of a kilogram of methamphetamine in the city has plummeted from $60,000 to $17,000. As a result, many dealers have begun to cut their supply of more expensive and popular drugs, such as cocaine, MDMA and opioids, with meth to boost their profits and get their clients hooked, says Inspector Max Waddell.

Provincial toxicology reports also show in 2017, one quarter of all Manitobans who died of an apparent opioid-related incident had methamphetamine in their bodies at the time of death, indicating that the substances are often used simultaneously, whether on purpose or by accident.

With points (0.1 gram) of meth available for as low as $5, the drug has become popular among lower-income groups, such as people experiencing homelessness, and students or people in their 20s – a group that makes up the bulk of rave attendees.

Since co-founding Project Safe Audience (PSA) in 2017 to help educate and reduce harmful drug use in the rave community, Bryce Koch, a raver himself, has kept meticulous data from the events the organization has attended: the type of substance checked; how it’s packaged; what the guest believes the substance to be; and what the reagent testing indicates the substance actually is. No guest believed their substance to be meth, but results showed nearly one-quarter contained traces of the drug.

“We’re not here to judge anybody. We’re here to present them with information and let them make choices,” says Jordyn Page, a nurse’s assistant who volunteers with PSA, which has no provincial or city funding. “When you don’t even know what you’re about to take – that’s when it can get really dangerous,” she added. “Nobody wants their night to end in an ER.”

In the back room of the club, Jason Zweiban of Project Safe Audience tests a sample of cocaine. It tested positive for meth. Beside him, free condoms and earplugs are offered to help partiers enjoy themselves safely.

PSA was founded by raver Bryce Koch, right, when he was a nursing student. The group offers drug checking at about one event a month.

Meth’s high is considerably longer-lasting than other stimulants and its acute results include a multihour state of euphoria and paranoia, during which users may go without eating, sleeping or accurately gauging potential dangers around them. “They can get a sense of being immortal or impervious to harm, and take more risks,” says Dr. Peter Butt, an addictions medicine expert with the Saskatoon Health Authority.

The drug can lead to sustained mental-health issues, such as psychosis, and profound damage to the cardiovascular system, he adds. Depending on intake method, it can cause respiratory damage or, with needle sharing, increased risk of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis or HIV.

Once the high dwindles, users often experience suicidal thoughts or significant mental distress, said Sheri Fandrey, the knowledge exchange lead at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba. Winnipeg Police Insp. Waddell says this has led to some users committing petty theft or robbery to afford their next hit and avoid the comedown.

Ms. Fandrey divides meth’s user-base into two distinct groups: daily users and occasional ones, or “the invisible meth population.” Project Safe Audience caters to the latter group.

Mr. Koch started the organization while studying nursing at the University of Manitoba. He frequently attended raves and festivals in other parts of the country, notably British Columbia, with extensive harm-reduction strategies. “I noticed a severe gap of harm-reduction information targeting this population in my own [rave] community,” he said.

For the past two years, Project Safe Audience has provided drug checking at about one event a month, hoping to provide drug-safety information to attendees and help them use drugs as safely as possible.

The science of reagent testing isn’t perfect, and before conducting a test, Mr. Koch’s volunteers – who wear rave gear, not scrubs – read a disclaimer that says so. The group is fundraising to purchase a $40,000 Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer, a laboratory-grade device that more accurately identifies substances within a sample.

Mr. Koch says the investment is necessary. Project Safe Audience is busier than ever: The group has been invited to share expertise with organizers in Saskatchewan hoping to provide similar harm-reduction services there, and in Winnipeg, it has partnered with the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network and 13 Moons, a harm-reduction program aimed to help Indigenous youth, to expand their reach and share expertise.

By the time the Winnipeg rave ends on the recent Saturday night, 12 partygoers have gotten their drugs checked, with three samples showing possible traces of meth. Once Mr. Zweiban is done reagent testing on the nervous woman’s drugs, he tells her that the substance appears to be MDMA and that there are no indications of the presence of methamphetamine.

The woman sighs with a palpable sense of relief, and thanks him before heading back downstairs.

“No problem. It’s why we’re here,” Mr. Zweiban replies.