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November 04, 2022

Fentanyl test strips made legal in Pennsylvania in hopes of reducing overdose deaths

The paper strips allow drug users to know whether the substances they're using are laced with the deadly opioid

Fentanyl test strips are no longer classified as illegal drug paraphernalia in Pennsylvania, a development aimed at reducing fatal overdoses in the state. 

Possessing the paper test strips previously carried criminal penalties. By decriminalizing them, drug users can know whether the substances they're taking have been laced with fentanyl, which can be deadly even in small amounts. Last year, fentanyl was involved in 78% of the 5,343 overdose deaths recorded in Pennsylvania.

"Fentanyl is undetectable through sight, taste and smell," said Jen Smith, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. "Unless a drug is tested with a fentanyl test strip, it is nearly impossible for an individual to know if it has been laced with fentanyl."

The new law, signed Thursday by Gov. Tom Wolf, was introduced last year by State Rep. Jim Struzzi, a Republican from Indiana County. It was passed unanimously by the state legislature. 

"This legalization is a big win in the harm reduction space, allowing individuals to be more informed given the large amount of fentanyl in our drug supply — this small strip of paper could save their life," Smith said.

Fentanyl, which is more potent than heroin, has become the most prevalent opioid in Pennsylvania, according to a special report released by the Office of the Attorney General in May. Last year, the state's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation seized twice as much fentanyl as heroin. During the early months of 2022, that ratio increased to 40 to 1. 

The drug has contributed to the spike in fatal overdoses seen since the COVID-19 pandemic. Overdose deaths increased by 16.4% in 2020, and jumped another 6% in 2021. 

In Philadelphia, which has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, the number of used syringes collected by Prevention Point's syringe services program has outnumbered the new ones it distributed for the first time. The nonprofit's leaders say this points to an increase in opioid use, with more than 10 million syringes collected over a 12-month period. 

The city recorded 1,276 overdose deaths last year, up from 1,214 in 2020. Fentanyl was found in 77% of all overdose deaths, but the drug was present in 94% of those that involved an opioid. 

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh previously had decriminalized the possession and distribution of fentanyl test strips. Philly Mayor Jim Kenney did so in August 2021 via an executive order aimed at raising awareness of the amount of fentanyl in the drug supply. 

"We gain nothing by penalizing the distribution and the use of fentanyl test strips, which are proven to help people assess and reduce their risk of overdose," Kenney said at the time. "Fentanyl test strips are a lifesaving tool that we encourage people to have, use and share with others." 

In Pittsburgh, Mayor William Peduto followed suit that same month, signing an order prohibiting arrests for the use and distribution of fentanyl testing strips. Peduto said fentanyl was found in 77% of overdose deaths in Allegheny County in 2020, and that the COVID-19 pandemic was tough on those experiencing addiction, with prolonged isolation leading to increased substance use. 

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