At Cleveland’s Urban Kutz Barbershop, customers can help themselves to drug screening tests with a somber message: “Your drugs could contain fentanyl. Please take free test strips.” Owner Waverly Willis hopes to protect others from unwittingly being exposed to the potent synthetic opioid ravaging the U.S., often secretly laced into other illegal drugs. Willis hands out 30 strips a week. Nearly 18 years into his own sobriety from drugs, Willis figures he’d be dead if fentanyl were so widely prevalent when he was using drugs. Fentanyl has driven overdose deaths in the U.S. since 2016. About 75,000 of the nearly 110,000 overdose deaths of 2022 could be linked to fentanyl, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Legalizing test strips could bring those numbers down, advocates say, saving lives by helping more people understand just how deadly their drugs could be. Until this spring, use of the strips was illegal in Ohio. It has joined at least 20 other states whose lawmakers decriminalized the strips since Rhode Island became the first in 2018. Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Kentucky and Mississippi also followed this year, the Associated Press reports.
The CDC recommends fentanyl test strips as a low-cost means of helping prevent drug overdoses. They can detect fentanyl in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and many other drugs — whether in pills, powders or injectables. The strips still are illegal in some states, outlawed under drug paraphernalia laws dating to the 1970s era war on drugs, long before fentanyl began seeping into the nation’s drug supply. Every state but Alaska had an anti-paraphernalia law on the books by the mid-1980s, making materials used for testing and analyzing illicit substances illegal. While the strips may not prevent drug use overall, they allow testers to take a pause if a strip comes back positive, possibly encouraging them to reconsider drug use and seek help, said Sheila Vakharia of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. “You never know if a fentanyl test strip can keep someone alive long enough so they can make that decision for themselves,” she said.