Are fentanyl test strips the answer to stopping more deadly overdoses?

This article is part of the WTOP series, “Facing Down Fentanyl: Teens Confront Drug Danger.”

This May 10, 2018 photo shows an arrangement of fentanyl test strips in New York. Sales of fentanyl test strips have exploded as a growing number of overdose-prevention programs hand them out to people who use illicit drugs. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In the fight against fentanyl, harm reduction for those who use the drug is also an important part of the equation, experts say. Harm reduction puts a focus on reducing some safety and health issues that come with illegal drug use.

One tool to make sure people using illicit drugs are not unknowingly consuming fentanyl is by providing fentanyl test strips, or FTS. The test strips allow someone to test a pill for the presence of fentanyl.

The strips are becoming more available as states begin removing them from lists of known “drug paraphernalia.”

In Maryland and Virginia, the test strips are legal, and in D.C. they have been decriminalized.

One Bethesda, Maryland based company is leading the charge to make sure the strips are legalized in all states and at the federal level, too.

Robert Houton, president of Team Vaccinate, began working toward getting Congress to act on increasing access to Fentanyl Test Strips after fentanyl overdoses claimed the lives of friends of his children.

“That’s where it really, really struck home — personal chord,” he said.

Houton believes with help from Congress the testing strips can be made widely available throughout the United States. Right now, the tests are mostly available at clinics and public health centers, and D.C. even recently started putting them in vending machines. But getting one isn’t as easy as walking into the neighborhood drugstore.

“With the escalating deaths among particularly youth, teens and vulnerable populations, Congress understands that they can do something about this immediately,” Houton said.

Houton said there appears to be bipartisan support for federal legislation to legalize fentanyl test strips, but lawmakers only recently began legalizing it on a state level, he said. One reason there hasn’t been action on the federal level, according to Houton, is that no one lawmaker has stood up to lead the charge.

Houton said the legislation his organization is pushing for would allow for easier access to test strips for detecting fentanyl as well as xylazine — a powerful veterinary sedative that can cause gruesome wounds near injection sites — and other drugs.

“The legislation that will be introduced will allow the testing strips to not be limited to just fentanyl, or xylazine but other substances that will kill and that’s why we’re very glad we’re doing it the right way,” Houton said.

The group plans to soon introduce a letter to Congress that’s supported by more than a hundred organizations, urging lawmakers to act on legalizing fentanyl test strips.

Read more from the series “Facing Down Fentanyl: Teens Confront Drug Danger”

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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