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With fentanyl test strips decriminalized, Pa. officials work to gauge demand


With fentanyl test strips decriminalized, Pa. officials work to gauge demand

Feb 08, 2023 | 11:27 am ET
By Marley Parish Cassie Miller
With fentanyl test strips decriminalized, Pa. officials work to gauge demand
Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Now that fentanyl test strips have been decriminalized in Pennsylvania, state agencies are working to gauge demand and distribute the tool, which helps identify deadly opioids and other chemicals.

The General Assembly, with final approval from former Gov. Tom Wolf, amended state law last year to remove the strips from the list of illegal drug paraphernalia. The change, which took effect in January, means that people buying or carrying the test strips no longer face criminal penalties.

State Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana, introduced the proposal, telling lawmakers that the strips could protect people from accidentally overdosing by testing for deadly opioids and avoid overdosing.

“We can’t help people with drug addiction if they’re not here,” he testified during a House hearing last year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, gets mixed in with other drugs — often cocaine and heroin — to increase their strength and drive down costs.

“In many cases, people who are addicted to drugs, they want the release, but they don’t want to die from the drug,” Struzzi said, adding that while he doesn’t condone drug use, the test strips could still save lives.

Some advocates and harm reduction organizations distributed the test trips before the legal change, an allowance permitted in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by mayoral executive orders.

But now, state departments are working to make them available at no cost across the commonwealth.

Four state agencies, including the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, launched a survey to gauge interest and demand for the test strips, asking those interested about existing training, preferred brands, and current distribution methods.

Jordan Lewis, DDAP’s policy director, told the Capital-Star, that officials want those working in the field to drive decisions on resources, noting that the department is interested in existing trends and ways to adapt current deployment methods used by community organizations to a statewide program.

“We really want the field experts to guide us in terms of what brands they prefer and if there’s a specific reason they prefer them,” Lewis said.

Lewis is hopeful that the responses will help state agencies plan and budget for a program similar in scope to the one created by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to distribute Naloxone to first responders and the Department of Health’s standing Naloxone order, which made the overdose-reversal medication available to the general public.

“We just want to make sure that something like that would work for these organizations as well,” Lewis explained, adding that the department wants to know whether PCCD’s program could serve as a model for another program.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the department had received 220 responses to the survey, Lewis said.  

The department does not have an official end date for the survey, but Lewis said officials plan to analyze the responses within the next week. 

“We’re really open to all the responses that are coming in and continuing to plan in the background,” Lewis said. 

Pennsylvania overdose numbers hit a three-year high in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges resulting from subsequent statewide shutdowns. State officials reported 5,168 overdose deaths in 2021, estimating that an average of 14 Pennsylvanians die every day from an overdose.

Pennsylvanians experiencing substance use disorder can use DDAP’s online treatment provider locator to find local treatment facilities. Resources are also available 24/7 through the department’s Get Help Now Hotline at 1-800-662-4357.