State needs to legalize testing strips to prevent overdose deaths, harm reduction expert says

By: - September 10, 2021 12:45 pm

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is much more potent than heroin, has entered New Mexico’s drug market and can make drug use more dangerous and even fatal. Fentanyl is killing more people in the state than heroin and prescription opioids now, according to health officials

Overdose deaths have increased in the state, with fentanyl-related deaths alone increasing by 129% between 2019 and 2020.

Sometimes users may not realize their supply has been contaminated by or cut with fentanyl or other illegally manufactured counterfeit drugs, and this can result in fatalities. Phil Fiuty, the harm reduction director at the Mountain Center in Española, said it’s time to make testing strips easily accessible — even for people who are using illegal drugs.

“We need to be able to pivot in real time to — in this case — the shifting drug supply,” Fiuty said. “The latest wave of fentanyl in the state has been in the form of counterfeit pills, and that’s causing all kinds of problems up and down the board.”

Drug testing kits are not illegal under federal law but are prohibited for people using illegal drugs under some state laws, including New Mexico’s, according to research by the Drug Policy Alliance.

The state’s Harm Reduction Act allows for distribution of free, sterile syringes but not drug-testing strips. The tests themselves can be bought at pharmacies or on the Internet, Fiuty said. And once someone who is addicted to an illegal drug uses a testing strip to check their supply, that strip is considered paraphernalia under state law. Harm reduction programs can be held liable for possessing supplies deemed to be drug paraphernalia in New Mexico.

The upcoming legislative session will be the third year in a row that Fiuty will lobby state lawmakers to protect health providers legally so they can hand out fentanyl test strips.

The proposal to allow distribution of testing strips didn’t make it onto the Legislature’s agenda two years ago, and then last year the bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers have acknowledged in recent meetings that many bills didn’t make it out of the judiciary committee because it was overwhelmed by a large volume of bills.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reversed their positions on the strips and other forms of drug testing, and gave states permission to use federal funding to buy and distribute test strips.

There’s a dangerous narrative out there that fentanyl and other knockoffs are everywhere, and if you’re a user, you’re just going to get some by accident one day and overdose, Fiuty said. Test strips, he said, give users the information they need to make decisions about what they’re doing.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.