New test strips, when dipped in the residue of cooked heroin or when a little water is added to empty bags of cocaine, will tell a user if the drug is laced with fentanyl. One line indicates that the drugs are positive for fentanyl. Two lines mean the result is negative.
A strip is now available that allows people who use street drugs such as cocaine and heroin to test whether their drugs are laced with fentanyl. According to a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is now the deadliest drug in America, connected to 29% of all overdose deaths in 2016. It’s sometimes mixed with street drugs without the buyer even knowing and can be deadly.
Fentanyl test strip technology was originally developed by a Canadian biotech company BTNX to test urine samples, but the strips produce the same results when they’re dipped in the residue of cooked heroin or when a little water is added to empty bags of cocaine. One line indicates that the drugs are positive for fentanyl. Two lines mean the result is negative.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins and Brown University found the strips detect even low concentrations of fentanyl in street drugs.
“Our findings bring to the table evidence that can inform a public health approach to the fentanyl crisis. Smart strategies that reduce harm can save lives,” said Susan Sherman, a co-author on the study. Several programs that distribute clean syringes to people who use drugs have started to distribute the fentanyl test strips.
In Los Angeles County, emergency departments, first responders, and other medical care professionals have been advised to discuss the risks and benefits of the strips with addicts. The test strips aren’t 100% effective at eliminating the risk of overdose and can produce false negatives. They also don’t let users know how much fentanyl is present.
“We are at a pivotal moment in the overdose epidemic, and we need to embrace the full range of interventions that can save lives,” Sherman said.
In a video, the Urban Survivor’s Union offers instructions on how to use the strips and what to do if the results are positive. The video states, “Let’s say you had some drugs you were going to inject…If it tests positive, you have options. One, you can shoot half back into another sterile syringe, which may not only be life-saving but also cost-effective. Or two, you may even choose not to do it.”
Some groups that work directly with drug users say the strips provide an additional means of saving lives, alongside the distribution of naloxone and clean needles. And, they offer another way to convince users to seek addiction treatment by making it okay to admit to use.
Not everyone is on board with the new strategy, however. The Trump administration’s assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for mental Health and substance use, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, has expressed overt opposition to the use of the strips. She has made clear the potential for people who use drugs to continue using even after they realize their drugs are laced with fentanyl. They might also use the strips to seek out drugs that contain fentanyl, she said. And, many substance abuse experts and those on the front lines, battling the epidemic, agree. They feel the strips give addicts a free pass to get high without addressing the root of the problem.
“We can’t afford to create a false sense of security…Let’s not rationalize putting tools in place to help them continue their lifestyle more ‘safely,’” McCance-Katz said.