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An addict prepares heroin, placing a fentanyl test strip into the mixing container to check for contamination. If the strip registers a "pinkish" to red marker then the heroin is positive for contaminants.
An addict prepares heroin, placing a fentanyl test strip into the mixing container to check for contamination. If the strip registers a "pinkish" to red marker then the heroin is positive for contaminants. (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

The Maryland Department of Health has distributed more than 57,000 kits throughout the state to test drugs for fentanyl two months after state officials announced plans to hand out thousands of kits.

Department spokeswoman Brittany Fowler wrote in an email that the department has given 57,320 fentanyl test strips to 27 health departments and other agencies for handing out to illicit drug users.

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The strips allow drug users to test either cocaine or heroin for the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid magnitudes more potent than heroin.

The department announced in March that it had purchased 66,000 fentanyl test strips for $1 each to distribute to various county health departments and local organizations.

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The handout comes at a time when state officials say the mixture of cocaine and fentanyl is a rising concern, with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford saying in March that “heroin no longer is the major ingredient with fentanyl. It’s cocaine now.”

Preliminary statistics from the Opioid Operational Command Center found that 884 people died of cocaine overdoses in 2018, an increase of 200 over 2017.

And cocaine mixed with fentanyl attributed to nearly 90 percent of those deaths, as the center says 784 people died last year due to the mixture.

A Johns Hopkins University study released late last year found that, out of 335 admitted heroin and cocaine users from Baltimore, Boston and Providence, R.I., 84 percent said they were concerned about their drugs having fentanyl.

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However, the same study found that only 20 percent of the 175 people surveyed from Baltimore City “were concerned about fentanyl in cocaine,” despite the number of fatal overdoses involving cocaine rising for the past three years.

Angel Traynor, founder of the Serenity Sistas recovery program in Anne Arundel County, said earlier this month that some of her clients who claimed to have quit heroin in favor of cocaine to avoid fentanyl are shocked to find they’re still testing positive for fentanyl in urinalysis tests.

Cocaine mixed with heroin is sold illegally on the street as a drug cocktail known as a speedball. Since cocaine, heroin and fentanyl are all white powders, the much more powerful opioid could be mixed into speedball without the user knowing.

Dr. Andrew Stolbach, a medical toxicologist and emergency physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said it’s a problem unique to the influx of fentanyl as he’d “never heard of people secretly spiking cocaine with heroin.”

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He attributed the spiking overdoses to fentanyl’s potency.

Illegal fentanyl, mostly manufactured in China and shipped covertly into the United States, is 50 times more potent than heroin, which makes creating a fatal mixture that much easier, especially for a population in which some users might do only cocaine and not have the natural tolerance for opioids that comes with regular heroin use.

“If you don’t have opioid tolerance, it doesn’t take much fentanyl to be life-threatening," Stolbach said.

Participating organizations

  • Anne Arundel Community College
  • Anne Arundel County Health Department
  • Healthcare for the Homeless
  • Baltimore County Health Department
  • Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition
  • BeSure (Johns Hopkins University)
  • Calvert County Health Department
  • Caroline County Health Department
  • Cecil County Health Department
  • Charles County Health Department
  • Charm City Care Connection
  • Daniel Carl Torsch Foundation
  • Department of Juvenile Services
  • Family & Medical Counseling Services
  • Frederick County Health Department
  • Harford County Health Department
  • Kent County Behavioral Health (Health Department)
  • Lighthouse Studies at Peer Point (Johns Hopkins University)
  • Queen Anne's County Health Department
  • Somerset County Health Department
  • Voices of Hope
  • Washington County Health Department
  • Wells House
  • Wicomico County Health Department
  • Youth Empowerment Society
  • Power Inside
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