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Fentanyl test strips can save lives, but they're not legal everywhere

Fentanyl test strips can save lives, but they're not legal everywhere
Posted at 1:15 PM, Apr 14, 2023

In the shadow of elevated train tracks, in a nondescript building, sits St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction.

"We try to do it all," said chief of staff Steven Hernandez. "You know, we tackle a lot of issues."

Part community center, part clinic, the Bronx facility offers services to those dealing with drug addiction, which includes making fentanyl test strips available.

"They give people choices. They give people options. They give people knowledge," Hernandez said.

Sheryl Davilar has used fentanyl test strips before and encouraged others to do so, too.

"I had fentanyl in my system before, so I was getting more careful of who I was getting it from and I was just testing them," Davilar said.

According to the CDC, drug overdoses killed 107,375 people in the one-year period between August 2021 and August 2022.

The CDC says fentanyl bears the blame for two-thirds of all fatal overdoses in the U.S. last year. The drug is cheap and often mixed in with other drugs, unbeknownst to the people using it.

SEE MORE: White House announces new actions against fentanyl supply chain

"You can, of course, have two problems," said Chiara Sovegni, co-director of programs at St. Ann's. "One is not having the effect that you're looking for. And the second one — you can overdose."

That is something that Nathaniel Garnett said he witnessed firsthand.

"I had a friend one time, he overdosed," Garnett said. "Most people don't even know you can test for something like that."

Throughout New York City, fentanyl testing strips are finding their way into other public places, too, like bars and restaurants.

Darryl Phillips works with the Always Strive and Prosper Foundation, which was founded after the 2015 overdose death of Steven "A$AP Yams" Rodriguez.

"Just started putting these kits brick by brick, you know," Phillips said. "We've got this one location, we got this location, we got this other bar, we have this other restaurant."

It's not like that everywhere, though. America remains a nation divided when it comes to fentanyl testing strips.

SEE MORE: US fighting fentanyl smuggling with new technology at southern border

According to the Network for Public Health Law, in nearly 20 states, the test strips are considered "drug-checking equipment" and therefore classified as drug paraphernalia, making them illegal to have. 

However, change may be coming: Fentanyl test strips will become legal in Georgia in July of this year, and lawmakers in Texas and several other states are considering several bills to do the same.

Jose Martinez is with the National Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We want to make sure that these tools and services get into the hands of the community that needs it the most, who are affected by overdose," Martinez said. "It does save lives."

Martinez said the test strips, along with the recent FDA decision to allow Narcan to be sold over-the-counter, can make a difference, but it is not a cure-all.

"The reality is that even fentanyl test strips and Narcan is just a Band-Aid," Martinez said. "It doesn't address the underlying issue."

Back at St. Ann's, they've heard what opponents to the test strips say.

"'If you give out test strips, you're condoning substance use,' or 'You're allowing people to use substances,' or whatever you want to say," Hernandez said. "But, in reality, I mean, what's the alternative, you know? Letting people die?"

It is a reality for hundreds of people every day in America's opioid crisis.