Drug policy often creates a dilemma between protecting users and enabling them. It is a conundrum that plays a role in new discussions about fentanyl test strips.
While robust treatment and education programs are necessary to reduce demand for illicit and dangerous drugs, so are public efforts to protect those who do use. Suggesting that assistance efforts equal the promotion of drug use is a misguided trope that ends up exacting a hefty toll on society. As the co-owner of a marijuana shop told The Seattle Times: “People are gonna do drugs. If there’s a way for people to do drugs safer . . . it’s a good thing.”
That is particularly true with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that quickly has proven to be more lethal than other illicit substances. Now, Washington lawmakers are moving to help protect drug users by making it easier for them to assess the presence of fentanyl in a substance.
Testing strips that can identify fentanyl are available. The problem is that they fall under the definition of drug paraphernalia and therefore are illegal in Washington.
Senate Bill 5022, co-sponsored by Democrat Annette Cleveland and Republican Lynda Wilson, both of Vancouver, would remove the “paraphernalia” designation for testing strips. It passed the Senate by a 48-0 vote.
Meanwhile, House Bill 1006 — which includes Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, among 26 co-sponsors — would expand access to testing strips. The bill passed the House 96-0.
Such broad support for the legislation highlights the crisis presented by fentanyl. While the drug is toxic enough to pose a threat to those who willingly use it, fentanyl also is easily mixed with other substances.
“Anyone who uses powdered drugs or takes pills that were not given to them by a pharmacy should assume they contain fentanyl,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s health officer and public health director. “Drugs purchased online, from friends, or from regular dealers could be deadly. There’s no way to know how much fentanyl is in a drug or if it’s evenly distributed throughout the batch.”
That was in 2021, when fentanyl still was largely unknown to the public. Now, the drug is inescapable, with fatalities quickly increasing throughout Washington and other states.
Testing strips alone will not reverse that trend, but they can provide a small measure of protection. As The Seattle Times explains: “Someone looking to take a pill for recreation or to relieve chronic pain would have to know about the potential for fentanyl to be in their drug to test it. Then they’d have to dissolve at least 10 milligrams of a drug in a little bit of water, and put in a strip to see how many pink lines appear. One line is positive; two is negative.”
Whether or not recreational drug users will go to that trouble remains to be seen. But experts say pilot programs in King County indicate the strips are being used.
That is encouraging as our state and others combat a particularly insidious substance. More than 67,000 deaths in the United States were attributed to fentanyl in 2021 — an increase of 26 percent over the previous year.
The most effective way to reverse that trend is to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl while providing effective and accessible treatment programs. The fentanyl crisis calls for quick and intensive action from policymakers.
But in addition to education and treatment, widely available testing strips can play a role in comprehensive efforts to slow a scourge that is damaging our communities.