Aug 15, 2023 - News

Washington expands access to fentanyl test strips

a fentanyl test strips sits on top of a package for the test strip, with a black background

A fentanyl test strip. Photo: Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Washington is expanding access to testing strips that can warn people if the drugs or pills they're about to consume contain potentially deadly fentanyl, joining several other states that have recently made the test strips legal.

Why it matters: Public officials say the strips can save lives by alerting people to the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid, which is responsible for an increasing number of overdose deaths in King County and statewide.

By the numbers: 712 people in King County died from consuming fentanyl last year, a stark increase from 109 in 2019.

  • County officials say the drug has infiltrated the local drug supply as it is increasingly added to counterfeit pills or mistaken for other white powder drugs like cocaine.

What's happening: Washington's Department of Health is spending about $100,000 in the coming year to distribute roughly 75,000 fentanyl test strips to needle exchanges and other groups that work with people with substance use disorder.

  • The department began purchasing those strips July 1, the same day a new law took effect clarifying that fentanyl testing strips aren't illegal drug paraphernalia.

Catch up quick: While some public health agencies and social service providers distributed test strips on a limited basis before, they did so with a risk of being cited for illegal activity.

  • "The law was opaque," John Doyle, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, wrote in an email to Axios.
  • Under the old law, "distribution could potentially raise civil infraction issues," he added.
  • With the new law, the goal is to make the strips "much more readily available," state Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) told Axios.

What they're saying: Brad Finegood, a strategic advisor with Public Health — Seattle & King County, told a panel of state lawmakers that fentanyl test strips are a powerful tool because people who ingest the synthetic opioid generally have no intention of consuming it.

  • One mother who testified in support of legalizing distribution of test strips said her daughter died of fentanyl poisoning after taking what she thought was an oxycodone for pain.

How it works: To test for fentanyl, a person can dissolve a small amount of the drug or pill they're about to consume in water, then dip a test strip in the solution. Results take two to five minutes.

What's next: Public health officials in King County had already been working to distribute fentanyl test strips last year, despite the ambiguity in state law.

  • Now, they're continuing to expand those efforts, with a goal of making the strips "available wherever there are individuals who are at risk of overdose," Sharon Bogan, a spokesperson with the city-county health department, told Axios.

Plus: In addition to saving lives, Orwall said she hopes empowering organizations to distribute fentanyl test strips helps more people get connected to services and treatment.


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