Blog Post

In the Fight to End Overdose, is Drug Checking Starting to Catch On?

Stefanie Jones
Drug checking for fentanyl

In the wake of the current overdose crisis, is this the year that drug checking finally catches on in the United States? It could be the start: in the last twelve months, Washington D.C. and the state of Maryland legalized drug checking in order to help prevent overdoses. What will it take to make this potentially life-saving harm reduction service standard in different states and communities across the country?

Just a year ago I wrote about the growing acknowledgment that drug checking had an important role to play in reducing preventable drug overdoses. Drug checking, which is the practice of testing a substance to get a better idea of what’s actually in it, can stop people from taking something unintended which could land them in a hospital or be fatal.

While drug checking via liquid reagents has been around since the 90s, primarily used in nightlife scenes where the drug MDMA was (and still is) often adulterated, this type of testing wasn’t sensitive enough to pick up fentanyl – a synthetic opioid driving up the numbers of opioid overdose deaths. As a result, drug checking as a harm reduction intervention was not on the radar of most people who used opioids and those who cared for them.

That all changed with the discovery that tests meant for urine analysis could be used off-label to test for fentanyl in drugs like heroin before they’re consumed. Suddenly the practice of drug checking became relevant to a whole new community of people.

Capitalizing on the strong desire to make all tools to prevent opioid overdose available, there have been some quiet but impactful wins related to drug checking since 2017’s International Overdose Awareness Day: most notably, drug checking has been legalized in Washington D.C. and the state of Maryland. This means that individuals in these places cannot be prosecuted for distributing, possessing or using drug checking kits or fentanyl test strips. These wins were accomplished by removing language that describes “testing or analyzing” substances from drug paraphernalia laws.

There have been other wins that aren’t in the legislative realm. In California, the state public health agency began paying for fentanyl test strips, and wrote into the budget a protection acknowledging the public health imperative for distributing and allowing people to use drug checking kits and testing strips. These examples are just the beginning of how laws and practices can and should change across the country. (And if you want to support these type of changes, you can sign a petition currently running for the state of Pennsylvania.)

Even though drug checking is catching on, a lot of work remains to make sure a broad spectrum of people and communities truly have access – and understand the benefits and limitations to the different types of drug checking they’re doing. In some places outside of the U.S., high level drug checking is available; the kind that can determine precisely what’s in a substance, and the amounts. While it’s important that individuals have access to the means to check their own substances easily and cheaply, the most ideal situation would be to make high level drug checking accessible to everyone.

And hey, if Richard Branson supports drug checking, that’s got to be a good sign, right?

We may have a ways to go before we turn the corner on lowering the number of preventable drug overdoses, but it’s encouraging to see the path being cleared for services like drug checking that can make a real impact in saving lives.

Stefanie Jones is the director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Harm reduction