Fentanyl Test Strips: Important Tool Or False Security?

Fentanyl Test Strips: Important Tool Or False Security?

By Kelly Burch 01/14/19

A recent study suggests that the testing strips should be widely distributed though some experts say the strips are not an adequate prevention measure.

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Last year, fentanyl became the most deadly drug in the country, responsible for more overdose deaths than any other substance. In addition to being found in — or even replacing — opioids like heroin and prescription pills, fentanyl has increasingly been detected in drugs like cocaine, whose users are at increased risk for overdose because they have not built up a tolerance to opioids. 

That’s why some people say fentanyl test strips are an important tool to help cut back on opioid overdose deaths. Some users say they often have no idea whether the drugs they’re buying contain fentanyl, which is many times more powerful than other opioids and can cause an overdose in even a small amount.

The test strips are able to detect the presence of the synthetic opioid, empowering users to make an informed decision about whether to take the drugs and about how much to use. 

“Evidence to date suggests that people who use drugs often do not know whether fentanyl is present in what they are about to consume,” authors of a report prepared by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wrote last year

The school conducted a study that found fentanyl test strips to be effective at detecting the drug. The researchers then interviewed people who use drugs about whether or not they would use the test strips: 84% said they were concerned about fentanyl, and 85% of people who thought they had taken fentanyl in the past said they wished they had known beforehand. Despite the drug’s powerful high, only 26% of users surveyed said that they sought drugs with fentanyl. 

“Drug checking was viewed as an important means of overdose prevention, with 89% agreeing that it would make them feel better about protecting themselves from overdose. Interest in drug checking was associated with having witnessed an overdose and recently using a drug thought to contain fentanyl,” study authors wrote. 

The study's authors suggested that more agencies distribute fentanyl test strips. 

“Drug checking strategies are reliable, practical and very much desired by those at greatest risk of overdose,” they wrote. “Drug checking services have the potential to facilitate access to treatment for substance use disorders and other essential services, as well as provide real-time data about local drug supplies for public health surveillance.”

However, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Elinore F. McCance-Katz wrote in an editorial on the SAMHSA website that fentanyl test strips are not a prevention measure that people should be focused on. 

“Can’t the nation do better?” she wrote.

She continues, “The entire approach is based on the premise that a drug user poised to use a drug is making rational choices, is weighing pros and cons, and is thinking completely logically about his or her drug use. Based on my clinical experience, I know this could not be further from the truth.” 

Like needle exchanges, fentanyl test strips are likely to remain a controversial —but potentially lifesaving — tool. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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