State health officials plan to distribute thousands of kits by the end of the month that will allow drug users to test drugs for fentanyl, the synthetic opioid officials say drove the increase in fatal overdoses the past few years.
The Department of Health has purchased about 66,000 fentanyl test strip kits at $1 each and plans to begin distributing about 60,000 of them to various county health departments and local organizations.
Anne Arundel County spokeswoman Brandi Francis said in a statement that county officials are “drafting preliminary plans to distribute the fentanyl strips through our peer efforts in coordination with the city of Annapolis and the state.”
The program comes after County Executive Steuart Pittman expressed doubts about “harm reduction” programs, including fentanyl test strips, on the campaign trail prior to his election in November.
“I have read the research on the potential pros and cons of needle exchange and fentanyl strip programs, and am disappointed to see neither has shown a significant impact,” he said on Nov. 2, adding his instincts were that fentanyl strips “could save lives,” but he’d want to consult with medical professionals first.
He later clarified his position to The Capital after the newspaper obtained a report in January that showed county health officials were frustrated by the lack of harm reduction programs implemented under former County Executive Steve Schuh.
Pittman wrote in an email that his comments about the lack of impact “should not be interpreted as opposition to the strategies” and that he was interested in pursuing them “if they can save lives.”
Schuh, the new head of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center, previously stated some opposition to harm reduction programs when he was Anne Arundel County executive, arguing the programs would give users the tools to continue their addiction.
Schuh said the decision to start the program was made before he was hired and “we are pursuing and supporting financially a lot of harm reduction strategy around the state.”
When asked about his opinion of fentanyl test strips, Schuh stressed that since the administration has moved forward with the initiative, “my personal opinion does not matter.”
“I don’t have a personal opinion,” he added.
Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips said the department expects to deliver the kits throughout the state by the end of the month and will be offering them to local jurisdictions free of charge. County health departments and local organizations can request the kits through the state, which will allocate them for distribution based on those requests.
“There are people who continue to overdose … and have not understood that what they were buying was not what they were used to buying,” Phillips said.
The idea of allowing users to test their drugs before using them has gained traction across the country as an inexpensive harm reduction tool.
A Brown University study released in January found that drug users in Rhode Island “not only used the strips, but also reported changing their behavior to reduce overdose risk if they detected fentanyl.”
To use the strips, users mix a small amount of powder drugs into a cup of water and then place the strip inside the cup.
The strip detects levels of fentanyl and its derivatives, such as carfentanil, and can be used to test heroin and cocaine, the two drugs state officials say are most commonly mixed with the synthetic opioid.
Annapolis city officials had begun exploring offering the test strips themselves late last year. City spokeswoman Mitchelle Stephenson said Kevin Simmons, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, would be speaking with state officials about the kits later this month.
While fentanyl has largely been attributed to the increase in heroin-related deaths over the past four years, state officials now have a growing concern that cocaine mixed with fentanyl may soon become the state’s next epidemic.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said, “Heroin no longer is the major ingredient with fentanyl. It’s cocaine now.” Statistics from the Department of Health showed that 626 people died between January and September 2018 from overdoses of cocaine and fentanyl, an increase of six-fold compared to 2015.
Phillips stressed the kit’s ability to test either heroin or cocaine for fentanyl will be key. She said the department is looking at ways to reach different demographics, including college students.
Some officials worry that some cocaine users, especially among the college population, have never used heroin and lack tolerance to any opioids when compared to regular heroin users.