A study that took place in Providence, Rhode Island, and two other major cities explored the possibilities associated with helping people who use street drugs to utilize fentanyl test strips in order to test the level of fentanyl in their drug of choice.
Fentanyl, a highly potent but inexpensive synthetic opiate, is often mixed into heroin and cocaine with the goal of making the end product as strong as possible on the cheap. The problem is that just a small amount of fentanyl can be deadly, so if the drug isn’t mixed well or if there is too much fentanyl in the product, end use consumers end up dying of an overdose.
Many drug users are terrified of this prospect, preferring to have more control over what they put in their bodies. For them, using a $1 test strip for fentanyl is well worth the cost if it means helping them avoid overdose. The study wanted to find out if people did use them when they were available and if the strips were effective in limiting overdose.
How It Works
Fentanyl test strips were designed to be used as a form of individual drug testing. Dipped in a urine sample, they can identify the presence of fentanyl: one stripe for positive and two stripes for negative. The strips are effective in identifying the presence of fentanyl in a street drug prior to use as well. Consumers simply add a small sample of the drug to water and test it with a strip. They will find out within minutes whether or not the drug they are about to use is tainted or not.
Though there are portable lab devices available to help organizations offer the service of fentanyl testing to clients, the fentanyl test strips turned out to be far more effective, identifying fentanyl concentrations about 100 times lower than detected by the lab devices.
Do Drug Users Want This Level of Oversight?
Because people are living with a drug addiction, it does not mean that they have a death wish or do not care about themselves. No one sets out to develop an addiction, and most are in crisis over the fact that they have not been able to make or sustain positive change in their lives on their own. This was shown when the study polled 335 drug users and found that 89 percent wanted to use the fentanyl test strips before using their drug of choice in order to feel safer; 84 percent reported they had concerns about whether or not there was fentanyl in the drugs they were using; and 75 percent said they did not want any fentanyl in their substance of choice. Many said they would not use the drug at all or would choose to use a much smaller dose if fentanyl was detected by the test strips.
“These people are going to be using heroin or other drugs,” said one of the study’s leaders, Susan Sherman of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at an April conference in Atlanta. “Drug checking allows for them have information about what’s in them.”
In addition to helping the individuals who used the fentanyl test strips, there were a number of unforeseen benefits to the study and the wider use of substance testing prior to use, including:
- Increased awareness of the problem: Many people do not realize how widespread fentanyl is in the drug supply, and using the test kits has been eye opening for many.
- An open dialogue: With knowledge comes discussion, and talking about the problem breeds a healthy forum for coming up with creative solutions.
- Lifesaving information for people living with addiction: When people have the opportunity to test street drugs in advance, they have the ability to make conscious choices.
- Lifesaving information for those who sell drugs: For purely fiscal reasons, small-time drug dealers do not want their buyers to die, so since they are often not responsible for mixing the drugs they sell, they have the chance to make sure they are not selling deadly drugs.
Brandon Marshall of Brown University was on the study team, and he said that the myth that people who use drugs don’t care about their own wellbeing is “crazy.” He also said: “Dealers don’t know what’s in there either, most of them. They don’t want it. They can’t make a living by killing off their customers.”
Is Your Loved One in Crisis?
There are a few drawbacks of fentanyl strips. For example, they do not identify the amount of fentanyl in the bag nor does a single negative test guarantee that other bags from the same batch and dealer will similarly be free from fentanyl. There is also a concern that some state laws render the purchase of the strips practically illegal. In short, it is a harm-reduction measure, but it is not a fail-safe against deadly overdose.
Treatment and recovery are the only evidence-based ways to avoid overdose. If your loved one is struggling with an addiction, is now the time to find out more about services and addiction treatment programs that can help them heal?