Drug abuse is not new. From morphine to molly, there have been any number of medical and illicit substances that have commanded our attention. We’ve been given a front row seat to observe the devastating impact they have had on our community. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes fentanyl. Classified as a synthetic opioid, fentanyl serves as a jack-of-all-trades in the drug game.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a Schedule II prescription drug. It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery. It is also used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids. It comes in the form of a lozenge, oral tablet, oral spray, IV, or as a patch. But then, there is the other side of the coin.
Fentanyl can be used or put in just about every type of street drug that exists. It’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. The drug can be obtained by diverting it from legitimate medical users. In addition, discarded fentanyl patches can still contain significant amounts of the drug in a gel form. Abusers eat, smoke or figure how to inject the leftover gel. In other instances, fentanyl can be manufactured illegally in homemade drug labs.
Once in the hands of drug dealers, it can be found in everything from heroin or cocaine, or formed into pills and sold on the street. Buyers often think they are buying oxycodone or other pills that are frequently abused.
Fentanyl is also cheap to make, flooding communities across the country, and is deadly. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl in Milwaukee County went from 8% to 73%. In 2020, of the 544 overdose deaths in Milwaukee County, 400 were due to fentanyl. In the last four years, this drug is now showing up in nearly 50% of all deaths connected to drug overdoses. The average drug user often has no idea that they may have recreational drugs that are mixed with fentanyl.
Understanding the increased risk of death associated with the drug most users would likely avoid products/activities that contain fentanyl. So, how do we address this problem? Certainly, it would be great if we could get people to stop using drugs. While we are working on that, we do have another way to stop people from dying from a fentanyl drug overdose.
Fentanyl strips are a way for those who use illicit drugs to check and make sure they are not ingesting or using a drug that contains fentanyl. It is a test that takes 2 minutes and is nearly 100% accurate in detecting the presence of fentanyl. Of particular note, is how little they cost. At roughly $1 each, they are an inexpensive way to help save lives. The single-use strips work like other over-the-counter testing products: The user dips the strip into water containing a small amount of well-mixed drug residue and waits a few minutes for the result. Again, this is a simple and cost-effective way to help prevent further loss of life.
Yet, the biggest obstacle to getting these strips into the hands of people, is the perception that the strips promote or encourage drug use. While it may be controversial, fentanyl strips work. To combat drug related deaths, we have to be willing to think out of the box and consider nontraditional interventions to save lives. As the coauthor of Senate Bill 600, which would decriminalize fentanyl strips, I am hopeful that Wisconsin legislators will see the value in this bi-partisan legislation.