DePasquale to Legislature: Legalize fentanyl test strips

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Pennsylvania should join two other states and Washington, D.C. in legalizing fentanyl test strips, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Wednesday.

The strips let people test for the presence of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin — in drugs they possess.

DePasquale called them “the best preventative measure available so far” to reduce opioid overdose deaths. Under current Pennsylvania law, they are characterized as drug paraphernalia and illegal.

“That needs to change, and the General Assembly has the power to make that happen,” DePasquale said Wednesday in the Capitol Media Center.

In Pennsylvania, 5,456 people died of a drug-related overdose in 2017, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Fentanyl was present in two-thirds of those deaths.

According to a study of people who use opioids by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 84 percent of respondents expressed concern about whether drugs they inject contain fentanyl.

Seventy percent of respondents reported that knowing a drug in their possession contained fentanyl would change their behavior, from not using the drug to altering how they use it or using in the presence of someone with naloxone — an overdose-reversal medication. 

DePasquale, a Democrat who is also running for Congress, made the recommendation as part of a report on the role fentanyl plays in Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis.

Other recommendations include:

  • Continue state funding for free distribution of naloxone. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has been doing so for the past two years.
  • Expand access to medication-assisted treatment including suboxone for addiction.
  • Incentivize individuals to enter addiction medicine, behavioral health science, and nursing with student loan aid.

In a release accompanying the report, DePasquale stated that “fentanyl’s deadly strength also poses a risk to first responders and law enforcement officers who may come into contact with the drug.”

This was a particular concern to the state Department of Corrections, which said in 2018 that a number of staff illnesses were caused by unknown substances snuck into prison facilities. This led to a number of controversial policy changes, including ones regarding books and legal mail. 

However, there is no evidence that touching fentanyl leads to an overdose.

Fentanyl is “not absorbed well enough through the skin to cause sickness from incidental contact,” according to the American College of Medical Toxicology

DePasquale said his statement was the result of concerns raised by law enforcement.

“I am not a medical doctor. I don’t know whether that is accurate or not,” DePasquale told reporters. “But law enforcement is concerned that it is accurate, and we think more needs to be done to make sure it is addressed one way or another.”

*A proposal by Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, would legalize fentanyl test strips for private use.

“By allowing those who are in the grip of addiction to possess and use test strips to assure their own safety, we will be able to prevent overdoses,” a memo from Struzzi’s office on the bill said.

The bill only applies to strips for personal use.

“Test strips which are possessed by those dealing in fentanyl would still be illegal,” the memo continues.

*Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect different legislation on fentanyl test strips.

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