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Fentanyl test strips save lives. Kentucky lawmakers may legalize them.

An array of white pills, laid out on a flat surface, are shown.
Thought Catalog
Fentanyl test strips can detect the presence of the deadly opioid in counterfeit pills, cocaine and other drugs. They're technically illegal in Kentucky, but state lawmakers are considering legislation that would change that.

Fentanyl test strips count as illegal drug paraphernalia under Kentucky law. A proposed bill would change that and expand access to them to prevent overdoses.

Fentanyl test strips are a life-saving tool that can detect if that deadly opioid is present in a batch of drugs, but they’re technically illegal under Kentucky law.

Republican Rep. Kimberly Moser of Taylor Mill hopes to change that with House Bill 353, a proposal that would largely legalize fentanyl test strips and expand Kentuckians’ access to them.

“You know, I don't want to give anyone a false sense of hope that this is … making your illicit drugs safe. You can still die of an overdose from other drugs. But if there’s fentanyl in your drugs, obviously it’s more dangerous and lethal,” she said in an interview with LPM News. “We’ve just got to make sure that we have all of the obvious tools in our toolbox.”

Fentanyl was involved in more than 70% of Kentucky overdose deaths in 2021. It’s potent and often mixed into other drugs like cocaine and counterfeit pills before they’re sold.

These paper test strips help people check if the drugs they plan to take contain fentanyl, and research has indicated they’re quite accurate. A negative result doesn’t guarantee a batch of drugs is fentanyl-free, but advocates say this still is a reliable tool folks can use to protect themselves.

“If you give people tools, they will use them. And sometimes they need some education about those tools, but test strips are really easy to use,” said Jennifer Twyman, an organizer with the grassroots group VOCAL-KY who previously struggled with opioid use for 20 years.

She said a positive result on a fentanyl test strip informs people’s choices. Someone might take a smaller dose than usual, for example.

“That can make people use way more caution. I know that in some cases, people get rid of it,” she said. “If it’s a methamphetamine user or sometimes even a heroin user, they don’t want fentanyl because it is killing people. They will get rid of that dope.”

Fentanyl test strips count as illegal drug paraphernalia under Kentucky law, and people who possess them potentially could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Moser’s bill would exempt the test strips from being considered drug paraphernalia unless they were used as part of an illegal fentanyl manufacturing or sales operation.

That means people could have test strips on hand to protect themselves without fear of criminal charges.

“The main point of this is that persons with a substance use disorder shouldn't be arrested for trying to prevent an accidental overdose using fentanyl test strips,” Moser said.

She said the bill has broad support, including from the ACLU of Kentucky and the state attorney general’s office.

If the state legislature passes Moser’s bill, it will expand access to fentanyl test strips in Kentucky.

Natalie Pasquenza, of Volunteers of America Mid-States, said her organization would start directly distributing fentanyl test strips to Kentuckians if state lawmakers legalize them by passing HB 353.

She described fentanyl test strips as a reliable harm reduction tool.

“This obviously allows those who are using drugs to make informed decisions about what they’re using,” Pasquenza said. “And we know that fentanyl is just so deadly, and we can’t help folks if they’re no longer here.”

Even though fentanyl test strips are technically illegal, the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition has been able to provide them to Kentuckians since 2021 through a federally funded initiative.

Shreeta Waldon, the coalition’s executive director, said someone who uses fentanyl test strips is less likely to have a fatal overdose. Groups like hers then have more time to engage with that person and potentially connect them to recovery services later on.

When they first talked to folks about fentanyl test strips, Waldon said some people didn’t think they needed to test their drugs if they weren’t using opioids.

Once they learned how fentanyl can be mixed into different kinds of substances, she said they wanted to take advantage of this tool.

“Now they want to test it,” she explained. “They’re concerned about knowing what’s in there.”

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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