Philadelphia will no longer arrest people for possessing or distributing fentanyl test strips, according to an executive order Mayor Jim Kenney signed Monday.
The strips allow people to test other drugs for the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has played a major part in driving the country’s rising overdose death toll. It’s often mixed with other, generally less deadly opioids, and increasingly has been found in drugs like cocaine, which means some people are ingesting it by accident.
But the test strips that could better inform drug-users’ decisions and possibly lead to fewer overdose deaths are illegal in Pennsylvania, because they’re considered drug paraphernalia.
Kenney’s decision to essentially ignore that state law is in line with a position the city District Attorney’s Office took earlier this year, when it formally adopted a policy of not prosecuting people found to be in possession of or distributing the strips. Kenney didn’t provide data on how many of these arrests have been happening.
DA Larry Krasner argued test strips are “a tool to prevent overdose and save lives,” not a crime. In a statement announcing his executive order, Kenney echoed that logic.
“We have to use every available method to save lives while combating the opioid crisis,” he said. “Fentanyl is increasingly a factor in every kind of fatal drug overdose and contributes to nearly all opioid-related deaths in Philadelphia. We gain nothing by penalizing the distribution and use of fentanyl test strips.”
That attitude has also been adopted on the state level. Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued his own statement, saying his office will also not prosecute people who are arrested for simply possessing test strips.
“Fentanyl is a poison ravaging our neighborhoods and is largely responsible for the dramatic uptick in overdose deaths we have suffered over the past year,” Shapiro said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said states and municipalities can use federal funding to buy rapid fentanyl test strips.
For several years in a row, State Rep. Jim Struzzi (R-Indiana) has been pushing a bill that would change Pennsylvania law to legalize the test strips. The bill has never gotten much movement in the GOP-controlled legislature; Struzzi introduced it again this year.
Philadelphia health officials believe fentanyl contributes to 94% of opioid-related overdose deaths in the city, and 81% of overall drug deaths.
Those deaths have risen sharply. In 2012, the city recorded nine deaths involving fentanyl. Last year, that number was up to 979.
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