Fentanyl test strips become decriminalized this week under new Pennsylvania law

Fentanyl test strips, which can detect the deadly synthetic opioid in drugs, were previously considered as illegal drug paraphernalia under state law.

An up-close photo of fentanyl test strips.

This May 10, 2018, file photo shows an arrangement of fentanyl test strips. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Beginning Monday, people in Pennsylvania who buy or carry fentanyl testing strips will no longer face potential criminal charges for possession of drug paraphernalia.

The state legislature, with final approval from Gov. Tom Wolf, amended the state’s drug laws late last year to recognize fentanyl test strips as a preventative, life-saving tool against opioid overdose deaths.

Prior, the test strips were considered in the same league as illegal drug paraphernalia like smoking pipes and bongs, and possession carried the risk of criminal charges.

Harm reduction organizations like Prevention Point Philadelphia widely distributed fentanyl test strips to people throughout the city for years, despite such action falling into an ambiguous area of the law.

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Shawn Westfahl is the organization’s overdose prevention and harm reduction coordinator. He said the new state law recognizes a broader shift in views on how to address the ongoing opioid epidemic.

“People may not be able to come to Prevention Point or one of our mobile sites or other organizations,” he said. “But to be able to have access to [testing strips] and not be afraid of being charged with drug paraphernalia for having them is a great step forward.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s overtaken heroin and opioid pills as the leading cause of deadly drug overdoses in Pennsylvania and across the U.S.

What’s more, fentanyl has contaminated the illegal drug supply beyond opioid substances. It’s been found mixed with cocaine, methamphetamine, other stimulants, and benzodiazepines.

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Preliminary data from the state Department of Health shows that more than 3,000 people in Pennsylvania died from a drug overdose in the last year.

The test strips can detect the presence of fentanyl in different substances. The strip is dipped in a bit of water that’s mixed with drug residue. Within minutes, the strip reveals if the substance mixture contains fentanyl.

The test strips don’t determine how much fentanyl is present in the sample, but Westfahl said for some people, it’s enough to know it’s there at all.

“We know that a lot of different drugs have been contaminated with fentanyl, and if somebody doesn’t have a tolerance to fentanyl, a little bit can be deadly,” he said. “For people who may recreationally use pills or powder coke, who don’t have that tolerance to fentanyl, these cheap devices can really save their life.”

In addition to using the fentanyl test strips, harm reduction experts recommend that people don’t use substances alone and always keep the opioid overdose reversal medication, naloxone, on hand.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24-hour hotline that offers referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Call 1-800-662-HELP for more information.

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