Inside California's Fentanyl Testing Experiment

By Keri Blakinger 06/04/18

The state has spent thousands to distribute fentanyl testing strips but is its harm reduction experiment working?

testing strips

As opioid overdoses soar, California health officials are helping people test their own drugs for fentanyl, the powerful drug linked to thousands of deaths across the country. 

Since last May, the state has spent nearly $60,000 distributing fentanyl test strips to needle exchanges across the state, paying for people to test their own drugs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The test strips are a scant $1 apiece and give results in five minutes, much like a pregnancy test. One line means there’s fentanyl; two means there’s not. 

Fentanyl deaths in California tripled from 2016 to 2017, and the drug is showing up with increasingly frequency in The Golden State. 

“The crisis that is fentanyl is rapidly evolving and increasingly deadly, and it hasn’t turned around,” Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a University of California San Francisco professor told the Times. “I just see desperation.” 

But some experts warned that the state’s solution may not be as helpful as it seems. The test strips haven’t been approved by the feds and it’s not clear how accurate the results are, especially since they’re designed to test urine.

“I wish I could have more confidence in the fentanyl test strips,” said Dr. Gary Tsai of the Los Angeles County health department. Another problem, experts say, is that the strips might be too sensitive. Since they detect minuscule amounts of the drug—amounts that wouldn’t be enough to cause an overdose—there’s a risk that users might ignore them. 

New York state already makes use of similar test strips, as do overdose prevention programs in other areas of the country.

The move comes amid concerns that the deadly synthetic opioid is showing up in an increasing number of other substances—not just heroin. 

“We’re a little bit behind everybody else, but we’re still following the same timeline,” said Los Angeles Community Health Project needle exchange director Michael Marquesen. “I’m sure it’s going to show up everywhere.”

The test strips have already shown that somewhere around 40% of the heroin in Hollywood contains fentanyl, experts said. 

“The overdose rates in Hollywood are through the roof,” Marquesen said. “They keep rising every month.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.