Today the Council of the District of Columbia voted to allow the District’s syringe exchange programs and other community based organizations to provide their clients with life-saving drug checking kits. Drug checking kits are a proven method to reduce overdose deaths from deadly adulterants such as fentanyl. However, under District of Columbia law drug checking kits are considered paraphernalia and are illegal. This has prevented syringe exchanges from providing clients with testing kits, despite the fact that this increasingly popular harm reduction measure is used throughout the world.
According to the District of Columbia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, opioid overdose deaths have rapidly increased in the District, from 83 deaths in 2014 to 231 deaths in 2016. There is no indication that this rise in fatalities will slow. There have been more opioid overdoses in 2017 than there were in 2016 during the same time period; as of August of this year there were already 190 fatalities from opioids, 72% of which involved fentanyl or an analog. The Council has addressed the crisis by passing legislation expanding access to overdose reversal drugs like naloxone, and is currently considering at least three additional harm reduction opioid measures. As an evidence-based public health measure, drug checking is another intervention that has garnered Council support.
“We applaud Councilmembers Gray and Grosso for their leadership, and the Council for taking swift action today on a common sense measure to save lives,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, Policy Manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. “We must continue to push back against the legacy of prohibition-based laws that prevent our city from adopting evidence-based public health measures. We look forward to continuing to work with the Council to fix outdated and counterproductive policies; we can all agree that drug use is a public health problem that needs a public health response,” said Boecker.
Drug checking is a harm reduction service that can reduce overdose fatalities by detecting dangerous adulterants like fentanyl. Drug checking is simple and quick - a substance is diluted with water, the testing strip is dipped in, and a positive for an adulterant is revealed in seconds. A recent pilot program in Vancouver, B.C. showed that drug checking helps prevent fatal overdoses. Of drugs checked during the study, 79% contained potentially deadly fentanyl. Those who checked their drugs prior to use were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose and were 25% less likely to overdose. With the vast majority (72%) of opioid deaths in the District now involving fentanyl or an analog, this service would clearly be of value to residents and have the potential to save lives.
Under the emergency legislation adopted today (B22-0604), drug testing equipment will remain under the definition of prohibited paraphernalia in DC Code, but the measure will establish an exemption to allow HIPS and similar organizations to distribute drug checking kits, and permit individuals who use drugs to check their personal use drugs for dangerous adulterants, free from fear of criminalization.
"The increase in fentanyl and its analogs is a serious issue facing our family, friends, and neighbors. With the passage of this emergency measure the District can begin to actively help save lives. Although this measure does not go far enough, it is a commendable step which will allow individuals to protect themselves from fentanyl," said Cyndee Clay, Executive Director of HIPS, "Eliminating criminal penalties for testing kits acknowledges they are public health tools which can continue to keep our community safe. HIPS is excited to being distributing these kits within the District. We urge the District to advance innovative, evidence-based public health policies instead of relying on antiquated policies which rely on over criminalization and only hurt the people we serve," said Clay.