The number of opioid-related overdose deaths has increased dramatically over the last several years. One of the main contributing factors to this increase is the greater prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is cheap to produce and capable of being more than 100 times more potent than heroin.
Only a small amount of fentanyl can be fatal for someone who does not have the tolerance to handle this powerful drug. Furthermore, many drug dealers have started lacing their other products with fentanyl to create more powerful, more addictive drugs for their customers.
San Francisco Test Strips for Fentanyl
San Francisco officials have enacted a new policy to help reduce the startling number of opioid-related deaths in the city by offering free test strips at Harm Reduction Centers in the city.
A user mixes a small sample of his or her drugs with water and dips one end of a test strip into the solution. After about 15 seconds, the test strip will let the individual know whether the drugs contain fentanyl:
- If the strip displays a single line, then the sample contains fentanyl.
- Two lines means the sample is fentanyl free.
Does This Initiative Really Help?
Many drug users who purchase drugs illegally have no idea what they are actually buying. A dealer could have altered his or her supplies or bought from a different distributor.
Without a quality control system for street drugs, there is simply no way to tell what a purchase really contains. While this new test strip program may help prevent a few accidental overdose deaths, it may not do much in the way of stopping the source of the problem.
One of the issues facing drug users who try these test strips is that the strips only report the presence of fentanyl, not the concentration. A drug user who has been using opioids for a long time may believe that he or she is safe with a smaller dose, but there’s no way to be sure if it is actually a smaller dose.
Additionally, it would be very difficult for a person who’s already struggling with opioid addiction to simply throw away a potentially contaminated drug supply.
Here’s some more coverage of our @LSHTM @DEPTH_LSHTM team member Catherine McGowan’s research on fentanyl self-testing, this time in the San Francisco Chronicle: https://t.co/Dz0FMmceIZ @sfchronicle #publichealth #drugs #media #politics #ff #followfriday
— Dialogue Evidence Participation Translation Health (@DEPTH_LSHTM) October 19, 2018
Fentanyl-Laced Cocaine and Other Drugs
Another reason this new program may not help as much as the city of San Francisco believes is that most illegal drug users associate fentanyl with heroin. At this point, many people are aware of the risk of fentanyl-laced heroin, but users of other drugs may not realize their own drugs are dangerous. Fentanyl is a fine white powder, making it easy to blend with other powdered drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.
A drug user who primarily abuses stimulants like cocaine probably wouldn’t expect opioids in his or her drug purchases. Additionally, drug users who do not abuse opioids likely do not have much tolerance for powerful opioids purchased on the street, making them even more likely to suffer an opioid overdose from even a small concentration of fentanyl.
Overcoming Opioid Addiction
The new test strip program at Harm Reduction Centers in San Francisco could be a step in the right direction for a state struggling with widespread drug abuse and skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths. But, it is not a replacement for effective, comprehensive treatment.
Some California drug detox programs regard Harm Reduction Centers as entry points to recovery. Drug users who come to make their use safer and take advantage of medical services are more likely to investigate other resources at these centers, and the hope is that they may eventually seek addiction treatment.
What It Takes for Substance Abuse Recovery
The only real way to make drug use safer is to stop using drugs, which is not easy at all for thousands of people in the San Francisco area. A long-term addiction treatment plan needs to address an individual’s situation entirely and address the full scope of addiction for the best chance of recovery.
It’s crucial for all people struggling with drug addiction to acknowledge the extreme dangers of fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is potentially fatal in just a single dose, so avoiding drug abuse entirely is the only real way to avoid this danger.
Anyone struggling with addiction in San Francisco should take advantage of the new test strip program to reduce the risk of a fatal overdose. Also, they should consider Harm Reduction Centers as great entry points to recovery.
Developing a Recovery Plan
Addiction treatment centers offer the best chance of successful recovery when they create comprehensive, individualized treatment plans for every patient. Drug addiction affects everyone differently: Two people who abuse the same drug may have incredibly different experiences, medical concerns and mental health issues that come into play in recovery.
It’s also essential for anyone in recovery to have a unique addiction relapse prevention plan. This may include a long-term mentorship or sponsorship program, ongoing counseling, and participation in group therapy sessions and advocacy programs.
People who have completed rehab and successfully rid their bodies of drugs will still face many challenges in recovery. Relapse is only part of the danger; it’s possible for a person who had a very high tolerance before rehab to relapse with as strong a dose as he or she usually took before rehab, only to discover that it is far too much. This danger is even more present thanks to the widespread appearance of fentanyl in different types of drugs.
Fentanyl is no longer only a concern for heroin and opioid users; it can now potentially affect individuals who abuse meth, cocaine, or other powder-based illicit drugs. San Francisco’s new test strip program may be beneficial in some ways to many people suffering from addiction, but it may also be too little too late in a state that has seen some of the worst effects of the nation’s opioid crisis.