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Fentanyl testing strips are now legal in Pennsylvania; proponents say they’ll reduce fatal overdoses

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

Possession of the paper test strips previously carried criminal penalties. By decriminalizing them, drug users can know if the drugs they are taking are 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 by 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 almost impossible for an individual to know if it is laced with fentanyl.”

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

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

Fentanyl, which is more powerful than heroin, has become the most common opioid in Pennsylvania, according to a special report released in May by the Office of the Attorney General. 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 increase in fatal overdoses seen since the COVID-19 pandemic. Overdose deaths increased by 16.4% in 2020 and by another 6% in 2021.

In Philadelphia, hit hard by the opioid epidemic, the number of used syringes collected by Prevention Point’s syringe services program outnumbered the new ones it distributed for the first time. The nonprofit’s leaders say this indicates 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 involving an opioid.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh previously 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 use of fentanyl test strips, which have been proven to help people assess and reduce their risk of overdose,” Kenney said at the time. “Fentanyl test strips are a life-saving tool that we encourage people to have, use and share with others.”

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

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