LOS ANGELES (AP) — California health officials are experimenting with distribution of test strips that allow people to check their drugs for the presence of the powerful opioid fentanyl, which is causing numerous overdoses and deaths nationwide.
The state health department has been paying about half of California’s 45 needle exchanges to distribute the strips and has spent about $57,000 on the program so far, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.
Fentanyl can be mixed into other drugs such as heroin and cocaine without the user knowing.
The tests are conducted by mixing a bit of a drug with water and then dipping a strip into the fluid for a few seconds. The strip shows a single line for a positive result and two lines if it is negative.
New York state and several overdose prevention programs across the country also are using the test strips, the Times said. The strips developed by the biotechnology company BTNX based in Toronto, Canada, are only sold to governments and harm reduction programs. CEO and founder Iqbal Sunderani said the state of California is his biggest customer.
Michael Marquesen, executive director of needle exchange Los Angeles Community Health Project, said distributing the strips allows him to warn people about fentanyl and teach them how to use the anti-overdose medication naloxone.
The tests have shown that 40 percent of the heroin in Hollywood contains fentanyl, he said.
“The overdose rates in Hollywood are through the roof,” Marquesen said. “They keep rising every month.”
The medical director of Los Angeles County’s health department’s substance abuse prevention and control division said officials are considering offering the test strips more widely, but he worries about their accuracy.
Dr. Gary Tsai said the tests were made for pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl, which may not match the kind found in street drugs.
“I wish I could have more confidence in the fentanyl test strips,” he said.
California deaths due to fentanyl tripled between 2016 and last year, the Times said.
“Fentanyl can kill you at first use — that’s why there’s incredible urgency,” Dr. Kelly Pfeifer said, who studies the opioid epidemic at the California Health Care Foundation.
The test strips experiment is underway even though they haven’t been approved by federal regulators and some experts have concerns about their use.
Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a University of California, San Francisco, professor who studies heroin use, said use of the tests underscores the severity of the problem.
“The crisis that is fentanyl is rapidly evolving and increasingly deadly, and it hasn’t turned around,” Ciccarone said. “I just see desperation.”