Written by: Caroline Capriccio, Wellspring Intern
A new test strip that determines whether a street drug has been laced with fentanyl is being met with praise and skepticism.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used as a pain reliever, is now the deadliest drug in America. It is a drug that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and was linked to nearly 29% of all overdose deaths in 2016.
Fentanyl produces a powerful high and a small amount can cause a fatal overdose. It is cheap and sometimes mixed into street drugs without a buyer’s knowledge. An even bigger issue is the fact that heroin and fentanyl look nearly identical. A user never fully knows what they are taking and given the potency, it’s deadly.
Fentanyl test strips were originally developed by Canadian biotechnology company BTNX. Its purpose is to reduce harm associated with drug use by offering clients the option of checking their drugs for the presence of fentanyl.
There are two different methods to test for fentanyl. A user can either test all of the drug they consume by dissolving it in water and dipping the strip in for about 30 seconds or they can dissolve the residue stuck to the inside of a baggie that the drugs have come in.
The fentanyl test strips work like a pregnancy test in reverse. One red line suggests a positive result for the presence of fentanyl whereas two red lines suggests a negative result. If fentanyl is detected, the idea is that the individual will not use or will change the way he or she uses the dose. The test strips, however, are not 100% effective at eliminating the risk of overdose. For instance, they don't identify all forms of fentanyl, they can produce false negatives, and they also do not let users know how much fentanyl the drugs contain.
While researchers see fentanyl test strips as an opportunity to halt the increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths, not everyone has praised the strips as a useful tool. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Dr. Elaine McCance-Katz, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, have openly opposed the use of fentanyl test strips. In a blog post, Katz laid out several reasons for her opposition. Among them is a concern that even if people know their drugs are laced with fentanyl, they will still use the drugs despite the apparent danger. They might also use the strips to seek out drugs that contain fentanyl to achieve a stronger high.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration https://blog.samhsa.gov/2018/10/03/for-beating-the-opioid-crisis-america-has-better-weapons-than-fentanyl-test-strips
The Atlanta Journal Constitution https://www.ajc.com/news/national/fentanyl-test-strips-emerge-controversial-new-tool-fight-overdoses/9CNsyNWLoXRfJvbKN2eSAJ/
BTNX Inc. https://www.btnx.com/files/BTNX_Fentanyl_Strips_Harm_Reduction_Brochure.PDF