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States Look To Fentanyl Test Strips As An Easy Way To Save Lives

States across the country are passing laws to allow drug users to possess fentanyl test strips, part of a new emphasis on harm reduction program that aim to reduce the likelihood of drug related fatalities. Test strips are now allowed in now allowed in every state except Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota and Texas, according to the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association.

The strips are used to test street drugs and counterfeit versions of pharmaceuticals for fentanyl content, which allows them to make informed decisions regarding their use — such as whether to reduce the amount the take, or abstain altogether, Governing reports.

Drug overdose deaths are high enough in number to be a major factor driving down life expectancy, and almost 80 percent of preventable overdose deaths in the U.S. are caused by opioids, and nearly 90 percent of these involve synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Detecting what’s in the pills and powders that end up in the hands of drug users is increasingly important, and test strips are just part of the testing infrastructure necessary to prevent harm, experts say. The drug supply is volatile, changing all the time, says Kristen Pendergrass, vice president of state policy for Shatterproof, a nonprofit that works on addiction issues. “People don’t necessarily know what’s in there. It’s kind of scary,” she says.

Not everyone is in support of legalizing test strips. Some argue that the laws enable drug use, and addiction. "I just don't think it's a good policy to make it easier for people addicted to drugs to use drugs," said Joey Hensley, a Tennessee state senator who is also a physician, when he voted against decriminalization of the strips in 2022.

But advocates argue that harm reduction efforts are important stopgap measures that allow safe use of drugs as people work toward treatment and recovery.

“Not doing anything is very costly,” says Ju Park, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University. “The opioid crisis is a trillion-dollar-a-year issue.”

Park leads the Harm Reduction Innovation Lab at Rhode Island Hospital and has been a co-investigator in several studies of fentanyl strip programs, including efforts by Baltimore’s health department.

“If you talk to people who have been running the services for many years, they will tell you that they save lives,” Park says. “Setting up programs is the first step in really understanding their effectiveness.”


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