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Legalizing Test Strips To Stave Off Overdose Deaths

To combat the nation's Fentanyl crisis, test strips must be sold over the counter at CVS, Walgreens, etc.

Fentanyl Test Strips

Many states are resorting to legalizing the testing strips to address the distressing rise in Fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the United States. So far, these test devices have been prohibited under drug paraphernalia laws. Georgia is the latest to join the growing list of states like New Mexico, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Alabama decriminalizing the possession and use of the test strips.

The synthetic opioid Fentanyl is mass-manufactured by drug cartels in Mexico with raw materials sourced mainly from China. Drug cartels push the drug into America through the porous United States-Mexican border.

Fentanyl is a medically approved painkiller. But, the street version of the drug is illegally manufactured and far more potent than the type used by healthcare professionals. The street drug is mixed with other narcotic substances making it difficult to detect. A hundred times more powerful than morphine, even small doses of Fentanyl can cause death.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provisional report published in November 2021 cited more than 100,000 drug overdoses from April 2020 to 2021. That figure shows a 28.5% rise in numbers from the previous year.

The Golden/TIPP Poll conducted last month also highlights the crisis. Of the 1305 American adults surveyed, one in five (21%) said they knew an acquaintance, friend, or family member who died because of Fentanyl.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, said that the drug epidemic “has exacerbated racial inequities.” The Golden/TIPP Poll numbers show the percentages Whites and Blacks tallied at 19%, among Hispanics it was 35%.

Golden/TIPP Poll: Do Americans know anyone who has died from Fentanyl, broken down by ethnicity

The crisis is so alarming that states are opting to make available a cheap and easy way to prevent overdoses. The testing strips only cost about a dollar. Though the test strip does not measure the percentage of Fentanyl in the drug being tested, it can detect even tiny amounts.

According to a Golden/TIPP Poll conducted in Dec 2021, an overwhelming 71% of Americans want to see Fentanyl test strips available over the counter at CVS, Walgreens, etc. Only a tiny minority, 10%, are against such a move.

Golden/TIPP Poll: Should fentanyl testing strips be made over the counter?

Testing strips are not the ultimate answer to solving the drug menace. Public health and addiction experts refer to it as a “harm reduction” tool. It could, they say, prevent unknowing and accidental Fentanyl use and, in turn, overdose deaths.

The illicit drug use has been made worse by the pressures of the pandemic. But, even such small measures as the ready availability of test strips can have a considerable impact. For instance, in South Carolina, where Fentanyl test strips are no longer illegal, a state-run anonymous survey reported some interesting results. According to Sara Goldsby, director of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, those who took part in the survey reported using fewer drugs, some even choosing not to use drugs altogether and feeling safer in preventing overdoses.

But the current drug paraphernalia laws do not encourage states to come forward to apply for grants for Fentanyl test strips or design programs to make them readily available. Even as more states decriminalize the possession and use of these strips, federal laws may have to be updated to deal with the current dire situation.

Though many are skeptical about making such tools readily available to drug users, such stop-gap measures have become necessary as the disturbing rise in drug availability and contamination keep making the headlines. The US Border Patrol seized 4,791 pounds of Fentanyl in 2020 and 11,201 pounds in 2021, an increase of 134%.

Drugs continue to plague America. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that around 17% of Americans above 12 years used illicit drugs in 2019.

Punitive drug policies have not succeeded in curbing the drug menace. The opioid epidemic necessitates a thorough examination of current policies and programs. While law enforcement should be given the resources to fight drug cartels and mules, barriers to treatments and rehabilitation should be removed. Education, awareness programs, and robust support networks will have to be implemented to uproot the illicit drug problems that ail the nation.

Related: Using Fentanyl test strips (Brown University)

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