Story at a glance
- FentCheck, a nonprofit organization, provides fentanyl test strips to businesses to offer their customers.
- The nonprofit provides fentanyl tests to more than 30 businesses in the Oakland area and has expanded to Reno, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, and soon New Jersey.
- Fentanyl has fueled an unprecedented surge in deadly overdoses nationwide.
America is wrestling with a new drug crisis.
Nearly 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses over the 12-month period ending in November, 2021, a record high driven primarily by the pervasive and powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl — which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
Just this month, new research showed, paradoxically, that while drug use among teens remains low, fatalities are on the rise, jumping from just under 500 in 2019 to more than 1,100 in 2021.
Researchers and public health officials have attributed this spike to fentanyl’s prevalence in the illicit drug supply.
Drug traffickers often mix illicit fentanyl with other powder drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine because it’s cheap to manufacture. Counterfeit pills made to look like legitimate prescription drugs like OxyCodone and Percocet containing fentanyl have also flooded the drug market.
This trend has made the novice and casual drug user more vulnerable to the threat of fatal overdose, as people can unknowingly ingest large doses of fentanyl believing it to be another drug like cocaine or OxyCodone.
To push back against this threat, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., has made it its mission to help recreational drug users “survive the night,” by expanding access to fentanyl test strips — small strips of paper that can determine whether fentanyl is present in a batch of drugs in minutes.
Since 2019, FentCheck has rallied businesses in the Bay Area, ranging from bars and restaurants to vintage clothing stores and bookstores, to discreetly offer the test strips to customers free of charge in restrooms.
“It was a canvas thing. We just knocked on doors and worked with people who were open to the idea. And even if they weren’t open to it, we knocked on doors again. But now they’re really enthusiastic,” FentCheck co-founder Alison Heller said.
Heller and FentCheck co-founder Dean Shold said they saw a need to provide fentanyl test strips to a broader group of people outside harm reduction programs akin to syringe exchange services as they realized drug supplies were being contaminated with fentanyl.
“We noticed this sea change where all of a sudden fentanyl was starting to get laced into other drugs, including things like cocaine, including pressed pills,” Shold told Changing America.
“We started looking at the fact that the community of recreational drug users — bankers who will go out and get cocaine to celebrate on a weekend because they got a huge bonus — are more susceptible to fentanyl overdose because they don’t have a tolerance for the opioids,” Shold said.
“So when you talk about meeting people where they’re at, these people are at bars, they are at restaurants, they’re in bookstores, they’re in art galleries. And those are all the types of venues we are looking at and that we are in,” Shold added.
FentCheck now provides fentanyl tests to more than 30 businesses in the Oakland area and works with the mayor’s office. The program has also expanded to businesses in San Francisco, Reno, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, and soon New Jersey. The nonprofit is also an official provider of fentanyl tests to UC Berkeley.
The harm-reduction nonprofit acquires the strips from Canadian company BTNX and distributes them regularly to participating businesses via a network of volunteers.
The tests are accompanied by easy-to-read instructions, modeled after a four panel comic strip, explaining how to properly test the drugs. After five minutes, the strip will either show two lines for a negative result or one line for a positive result.
Shold says FentCheck is going through 1,500 tests a week in the Bay Area alone, and several thousand when counting Reno, Portland and the East Coast.
“A lot of these venues actually have a fairly consistent usage pattern and a fairly consistent base of patrons. So we know that they’re being used, or being used frequently,” he said.
The test strips are seen as a key tool to curtail accidental overdoses, and federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have backed them as an effective prevention strategy. The Biden administration earlier this month released a national drug control strategy prioritizing harm reduction strategies like fentanyl strips.
Yet, the legality of the fentanyl tests vary widely state to state as they remain illegal in some parts of the country under drug paraphernalia laws.
A recent analysis found it’s legal to have the strips in at least 22 states, and more states have recently taken action to legalize the rapid tests as fentanyl overdoses continue to be a worsening problem.
Tennessee and New Mexico last month legalized the test strips, while a bill to do so in Georgia is awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.
While critics have argued these types of harm reduction strategies may enable drug use, advocates dismiss that claim, and argue prevention ultimately saves the public money and keeps people safe.
“The reality is we’re not incentivizing drug use. We just know that decisions are going to be made,” Heller said. “Harm reduction needs to be for everyone as we get through this epidemic.”
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