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In The Hole: Fentanyl Test Strips and Harm Reduction

Mary Rose Madden

Public policy on drug use in America focused for years on punishing those addicted. But more recently it’s turned toward what public health experts call “harm reduction.”  By reducing harm from drug use, many experts and public health specialists say, you help an addicted person live another day, a day that may be the start on the path to treatment.

Brandon Marshall, an epidemiologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, says the “definition of harm reduction has grown over time.”

First, there where needle exchanges to get clean needles into the hands of IV drug users to reduce the risk of sharing needles and reduce the spread of infectious diseases, like HIV.

More recently, Naloxone or Narcan, an antidote for an opioid overdose, has become available.

“Naloxone or Narcan came on the scene in the early 2000s,” Marshall says, “but distribution has become more widespread as the opioid epidemic has spread.”

In Maryland, you can get it at a pharmacy without a prescription. Law enforcement officers are encouraged to carry it and on any given day, you can find a training session on how to use Narcan and walk away with the antidote, for free.

Now, there are fentanyl test strips,  a type of “drug-checking” that allows users to determine whether their drugs have been laced with deadly fentanyl. Marshall says it’s the kind of harm reduction that “meets them where they are.”

Canadian biotech company BTNX developed the strips and a number of states in the US, including Rhode Island, California, and Vermont, distribute them. Baltimore started distributing them several weeks ago.

Brittany Fowler, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Health, says by the end of the year, 66,000 fentanyl test strips will have been handed out throughout the state.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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