Fentanyl test strips emerge as controversial new tool to fight overdoses

New test strips that allow drug users to determine whether street drugs are laced with fentanyl are being met with both praise and skepticism.

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Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used as a pain reliever that's 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent CDC study showed fentanyl is now the deadliest drug in America and was linked to nearly 29% of all overdose deaths in 2016.

When a street drug is laced with fentanyl, the user can underestimate the drug's potency and accidentally overdose, according to a statement from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Fentanyl test strips were developed by Canadian biotechnology company BTNX to test urine for the drug's presence, CNN reported. However, the strips work the same when dipped in the residue of cooked heroin or when water is added to empty baggies of cocaine.

In a study, researchers with Johns Hopkins and Brown University found that the test strips can detect even low levels of fentanyl in drugs.

“We are at a pivotal moment in the overdose epidemic, and we need to embrace the full range of interventions that can save lives,” said Susan Sherman, co-author of the study. "Our findings bring to the table evidence that can inform a public health approach to the fentanyl crisis. Smart strategies that reduce harm can save lives.”

Not everyone is praising the test strips as a useful tool. The Trump administration's assistant secretary of health and human services for mental health and substance abuse, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, wrote about the issue in a blog post. She gives reasons for why she opposes the test strips, including that drug users may use them to purposely seek out fentanyl for a stronger high.

"There is known, life-saving, evidence-based, medication-assisted treatment available to individuals who have these conditions," Katz wrote. "Let’s not write off their access to that; let’s not determine in advance that they won’t seek help, and let’s not rationalize putting tools in place to help them continue their lifestyle more 'safely.'"