We’re all concerned about the opioid crisis. Americans are dying in increasing numbers from drug addiction. Solutions to this crisis are in great demand.
One such solution growing in acceptance is giving drug addicts the tools to determine if their illegal drugs are safe. Fentanyl, a potent opioid often mixed with heroin and other drugs like Xanax, is a deadly killer. Inexpensive to manufacture, it is combined with other illicit drugs to increase potency and addictive potential. But it is often fatal due to its strong inhibition of respiration.
To combat this problem, a new test strip, originally designed by the medical profession to test urine, is being used to test heroin for the presence of fentanyl.
Arian Campo-Flores, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says overdose-prevention organizations in the U.S. first started buying and handing out fentanyl test strips about two years ago. Now, states like California and Rhode Island and cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio are distributing them, or plan to soon.
How will these test strips solve the opioid crisis?
“This is an effective way to have people thinking about risks,” said Louise Vincent, executive director of the Greensboro, N.C. chapter of the advocacy group Urban Survivors Union, which has been distributing strips since 2017. “It’s so important to give people as many tools as we can.”
Those who advocate the use of these test strips say the strips provide an additional means of saving lives. Other means include distributing the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and clean needles.
There has been opposition to this new approach. Elinore McCance-Katz, head of the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the approach relied on the flawed premise that drug users would make rational choices. She also said the strips aren’t guaranteed 100% accurate. “We can’t afford to create a false sense of security” for users, Dr. McCance-Katz wrote on the agency’s blog in October. “Let’s not rationalize putting tools in place to help them continue their lifestyle more ‘safely.’”
Do the test strips actually alter drug addict behavior?
Several studies published in 2018 suggest test strips couldalter drug users’ behavior. In one study, among users who tested such drugs as cocaine, heroin and prescription painkillers with the strips, half got at least one positive result, according to researchers at Brown University. Among that half, 45% responded by using smaller amounts of the drug, 42% ingested it more slowly, and 36% did a test hit before taking a full dose.
While test strips may help addicts identify the presence of fentanyl in their heroin or cocaine, this is certainly not evidence that the test strips reduce drug addiction – or even that they save lives. Using less of a drug that can kill you seems a bit like playing Russian roulette with a smaller gun. Sooner or later you’re going to lose.
It seems analogous to teaching your daughter to abstain from sex and then giving her a condom to put in her purse, “just in case.” The mixed message is sure to lead to the undesirable behavior, albeit with perhaps less risk.