Bronx Harm Reduction Center Gives Out Fentanyl Test Strips To Heroin Users

By Britni de la Cretaz 05/18/17

A staff member began handing out the test strips out of desperation, to try to curb the overdose rates among the center's clientele.

drug testing strips

At a needle exchange in the Bronx, New York, staff are stepping in with solutions to the ongoing opioid crisis and rising overdose death rates as a result of fentanyl-laced heroin.

At St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, staff member Van Asher is handing out test strips that can tell people whether there is fentanyl in the drugs they’re using. The strips are usually used to drug test urine, but people can put a little of the mixture that’s in their syringe onto the strip to test what’s in their drugs. Asher hopes that if users are informed about what they’re putting in their bodies, they can make decisions about if and how to use the drugs, he told NPR.

A recent study about fentanyl overdoses by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that most people do not know whether the heroin they’re using is cut with fentanyl. Asher told NPR that he started handing out the test strips out of desperation, to try to curb the overdose rates among his clientele.

With each strip, he gives his clients a survey to fill out and report back, though he says getting them to follow through is difficult. Asher is now working with programs around the country to try to replicate his idea, which originated at Insite in Vancouver, Canada, North America’s only safe injection facility

The difference is that if someone chooses to use their fentanyl-laced heroin at Insite, they can be medically monitored and an overdose is more likely to be reversed by staff, preventing death. In the United States, where safe injection facilities do not yet exist, it’s up to the drug user to monitor how they choose to use the drugs.

Vincente Estepa says that knowing there is fentanyl in his heroin is not going to stop him from using it. "It's stronger! If it makes me feel the euphoria, I'm going to go for it,” he told NPR.

In 2015, the spike in overdose deaths related to fentanyl-laced heroin led the Drug Enforcement Administration to issue a nationwide warning about the drug. "Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate," said DEA Administrator at the time, Michele Leonhart, calling it a "significant threat to public health and safety."

During a three-month period in 2016, a shocking 74% of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts were caused by fentanyl, which is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and is the strongest opioid available to doctors.

The numbers from the Bay State seem to indicate that fatal heroin overdoses are dropping, but opioid-related overdose deaths are climbing—authorities say fentanyl is to blame. In a press release, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders called the data, “a sobering reminder of why the opioid crisis is so complex.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.