Fentanyl Test Strips As A Harm Reduction Strategy

Many states have legalized or decriminalized fentanyl test strips to make available what many people see as a critical harm reduction tool. With a test strip, people can determine whether or not the drug they are about to take has fentanyl in it.

Fentanyl Test Strips As A Harm Reduction Strategy

Across the nation, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, has played a role in many drug overdose deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the 12-month period ending in January 2022, around 107,000 people died from drug overdoses, a historical high.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 67% of those deaths were linked to fentanyl. 

Making fentanyl test strips available is a harm reduction strategy aimed at reducing accidental overdose deaths from fentanyl ingestion.

What Are Fentanyl Test Strips?

Fentanyl test strips are exactly what their name suggests. They are strips of paper that can be used to test other drugs to see if they have been laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

People who buy other drugs such as stimulants or “party drugs” can use these strips to determine whether or not the drugs come with a greater risk of lethal overdose.

Why Do People Need Fentanyl Test Strips?

Some of the people who died from drug overdoses involving fentanyl in recent years were unaware that they were taking the drug. 

For example, they may have bought methamphetamine or cocaine, but the drugs had been laced with fentanyl.

While data on the effectiveness or use of fentanyl test strips is limited, one study showed that 77% of participants used a test strip, half of whom got a positive result.

How Fentanyl Test Strips Work

Fentanyl test strips were designed to easily test for the presence of the powerful opioid drug in other drugs.

How to use a test strip for fentanyl:

  • Put about 10 milligrams of the drug you’re testing in a small container.
  • Add about half a teaspoon of water to the container and mix the drug into the water (if you are testing methamphetamines, use about a teaspoon of water).
  • Once the drug has dissolved in the water, put the wavy end of the test strip into the water and leave it there for about 15 seconds.
  • Take the strip out of the water and set it on a clean surface, waiting about five minutes.
  • At the end of that time, you should be able to read the results.

Reading the results of a fentanyl test strip is fairly straightforward:

  • A single pink line on the left-hand side of the strip means that fentanyl has been detected.
  • Two pink lines on the left-hand side of the strip mean that fentanyl has not been detected.
  • No lines at all or a pink line on the right-hand side of the strip means the test is invalid.

Why Were Fentanyl Test Strips Made Illegal?

In the late 1970s, most states passed laws that made drug paraphernalia illegal. This was done at the urging of the DEA.

These laws included testing kits of the day that were used to determine the presence of illicit drugs.

Harm Reduction And The Move To Legalize Fentanyl Test Strips

Fentanyl test strips are only about a decade old and are the latest tool for harm reduction in the opioid epidemic.

While the 12-month period ending in October 2022 shows a decrease in drug overdose deaths, it by no means indicates an end to the crisis.

Proponents of harm reduction hope that the wide distribution of test strips will empower people to use them to check for the presence of the opioid in the drug or drugs they are about to take.

What Is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is a philosophy of how to help people who are using illicit drugs.

The basic idea is that some people are going to use drugs no matter what, and they are not ready for inpatient addiction treatment or outpatient rehab programs.

If that’s the case, the idea is to at least make it safer for them and elevate their quality of life by reducing inherently harmful methods of use.

Following this idea, test strips provide a way to help protect people from the biggest threat associated with drug use, which is fatal overdose. 

Other Harm Reduction Strategies

Test strips are not the only form of harm reduction. This philosophy has been around for several decades and encompasses many different strategies.

Narcan

Narcan is one such harm reduction strategy. Narcan is an opioid overdose reversal medication that has been used by first responders to save lives.

It used to be that you had to have a prescription to get Narcan. Recently, however, the federal government made it possible for people to get the medication over-the-counter. 

Legislators made this decision due in large part to the fact that first responders often cannot get to people who are overdosing on fentanyl in time to save them.

Needle Exchange Programs

Needle exchange programs started in the early 1980s and grew in urban areas as a response to the AIDs epidemic. 

Because HIV was spread, at least in part, through intravenous (IV) drug use, the idea was that people who were injecting drugs could access clean needles to protect themselves from the risk of AIDS.

Monitored Drug Use Sites

Monitored drug use sites are much rarer than needle exchange programs and much more controversial.

Rhode Island became the first state to have monitored injection sites, but this is not a widespread policy. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vetoed a bill that would have established monitored drug use sites in the state.

Opponents Of Harm Reduction

Opponents of harm reduction argue that tools like test strips encourage drug use. They believe that by making drug use safer, harm reduction tactics break down the barrier of fear in regard to drug use.

Opponents of harm reduction would argue that people who use drugs should be directed to treatment options like drug detox programs, not harm reduction tools.

This is why some states have been slower to legalize test strips or haven’t done so at all.

Why Test Strips Have Been Legalized By Many States

But legislators in some of those states are thinking twice. A bill is currently in the Texas Legislature to decriminalize test strips. 

Though test strips are still illegal in 19 states, the move by the majority of states to legalize them says something about the opioid epidemic.

There has been a recent decline in opioid overdose deaths, but it is still the case that between January 2015 and January 2022, deaths from opioid overdoses more than doubled.

How Are Fentanyl Test Strips Distributed?

For those states that have legalized fentanyl test strips, there are different ways that they have chosen to distribute them.

Nevada and Wisconsin, for example, have the test strips available at a variety of locations including counseling centers, addiction treatment facilities, and public health center locations.

In Washington, D.C., a non-profit organization called the Family and Medical Counseling Service has set up free vending machines that have fentanyl test strips among other harm reduction items. 

This practice has also been adopted in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Cincinnati.

Find Addiction Treatment Today

If you or a loved one is battling a substance use disorder, treatment is available and recovery is possible. 

Call FreeRehabCenters.net to learn about starting the recovery journey toward a life free from the harm of drug use.

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These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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