Fentanyl Test Strips? Young people need these?
Updated: Jan 20
Fentanyl Test Strips on the Dance Floor? Partygoers Face New Reality
‘You shower, you’re getting cute, you put on your makeup, you’re putting on your outfit, you test your drugs.’ Inside the push to reach recreational drug users amid surging fentanyl-overdose numbers.
By Sara Ashley O'Brien and Julie Wernau, WSJ
Updated Jan. 18, 2023 10:48 am ET
When she goes out, singer-songwriter Kalie Shorr always ensures she’s carrying the basics: wallet, keys—and fentanyl test strips.
“When I’m at clubs, people just whip out cocaine—on the dance floor, sometimes,” said Ms. Shorr, who is 28 and lives in Los Angeles. When she sees drugs at a party or club, Ms. Shorr will nonchalantly offer up a test strip so people can test them for fentanyl, the dangerous synthetic opioid increasingly making it into a range of drugs across America.
Ms. Shorr lost her sister and a childhood friend to accidental overdoses in recent years. She wants to help prevent others from dying, too.
Just dissolve the cocaine in a small amount of water, she tells them. Then dip in the test strip, and wait a few minutes to see if one line (positive) or two lines (negative) appear. “‘You can put it up your nose if you feel so inclined,” she said. “But please do this.”
Grabbing fentanyl test strips near the dance floor speaks to the way fentanyl has permeated so many corners of America. No longer just a threat to chronic drug users, fentanyl is increasingly a danger to occasional drug users and even teenagers—those who may be less familiar with how dangerous the drugs have become or what tools might protect them as fentanyl is showing up in drugs that don’t usually contain opioids.
Now people like Ms. Shorr, local business owners, elected officials and grassroots organizations are eyeing nightlife hot spots—from clubs and bars to restaurants and pizza shops—as a new front line to inform people about fentanyl test strips, and to make them available to those who dabble in illicit drugs or know someone who does.
The effort comes at a time when drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy, molly and fake prescription drugs like Adderall and Xanax that people take recreationally, are increasingly tainted with fentanyl. In recent years, fentanyl-laced drugs have led to overdoses on spring breaks, as well as killed people at fraternity houses and a bachelor party. In 2021, fatal overdoses involving synthetic opioids increased 22% compared with the year prior.
“The dangers of fentanyl are heightened for non-opioid users,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “People aren’t expecting opioids. They might have little to no opioid tolerance. And they might have no way of knowing.”
‘A public health tool like condoms’
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has endorsed use of fentanyl test strips, a product originally created to test for fentanyl in urine, after a person has already digested the drug. Some cities, counties and states have decriminalized them. In others, the strips are still considered illegal drug paraphernalia.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it isn’t actively regulating test strips that check illicit drugs for fentanyl, which has put the onus on buyers to sift through the market. Test strip suppliers must manage a confusing regulatory regime, and the increased demand for test strips has created more competition in the test-strip marketplace.
Demand has grown rapidly—more than 430% in three years in the U.S., according to Canadian biotech company, BTNX. The company’s fentanyl test strips got approval from Canada’s health authority in 2014 for urine testing. BTNX said it considers testing drugs directly to be “off-label” use of the product.
In the past year, new providers have emerged. WiseBatch, a startup that buys fentanyl urinalysis tests from a manufacturer, rebrands them as drug tests and sells both wholesale and directly to consumers. DanceSafe, a nonprofit that has been drug checking for decades, worked with a manufacturer to put a new test strip on the market late last year. Test strip prices range from $1 to $2 per strip for consumers.
Kalie Shorr’s purse, containing several fentanyl test strips in their white packaging.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF KALIE SHORR
“I want them to treat it like a public health tool like condoms,” said DanceSafe executive director Mitchell Gomez.
Theo Krzywicki, who founded the nonprofit End Overdose, which provides overdose response training to nightlife venues and elsewhere, said he sources strips from five different suppliers. “Everyone is trying to corner this market right now,” he said.
Studies indicate that fentanyl test strips can be an effective, life-saving tool but that there are caveats. For example, the tests rely on individuals to dilute the drugs in water and follow directions, researchers say. Also, the strips might not detect the presence of fentanyl if only a small portion of a batch of drugs is tested. Even if test strips are used, they recommend having the overdose-reversing drug Narcan on hand.
Organizations are giving away tests for free at venues and events with instructions on how to use them, and in some cases, selling the strips on their websites. Test strips are also being sold on Amazon.
In San Francisco, drag queen Kochina Rude, whose legal name is Cary Escovedo, hosts a weekly show at a nightclub called Oasis that includes a brief segment about Narcan and distributes the medication to some attendees. There are fentanyl test strips in a fishbowl outside the restrooms for patrons to take.
“You shower, you’re getting cute, you put on your makeup, you’re putting on your outfit, you test your drugs. Incorporate it as a normal part of your routine,” Ms. Rude said. “I want it to be a very accessible, very normalized, mundane thing.”
Legal Businesses vs. Illegal Substances
Getting fentanyl strips into the hands of recreational drug users has been an uphill battle.
One 29-year-old who works in the tech industry said he doesn’t consider himself at risk. He cited a network of trusted individuals he sticks with in New York City, where he lives. He trusts his cocaine dealer, whom he has used for four years and who was vetted by a friend. At parties, he said he typically assumes it’s fine to consume cocaine others brought after witnessing someone else do it first.
“Somebody consuming it and then not having an adverse reaction is as good as a drug test, like a purity test,” he said.
According to the CDC, knowing where drugs come from doesn’t mean they’re safe. Since fentanyl is so powerful, just a few grains can cause an overdose, and those grains could be in one part of a pill or batch of cocaine and not another.
The New York City health department, which has a pamphlet for drug users on how to use test strips, suggests people test their entire batch and if it tests negative, dry it out, put it in a clean nasal spray device to use it, or drink it if the drug is orally ingestible.
Reaching people on social media has proven difficult for advocacy groups such as End Overdose, which provides free Narcan and test strips on its website, and Bunk Police, a for-profit company which sells a range of drug-testing supplies. They say they’ve had posts about fentanyl test strips taken down or accounts banned on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
Policies on these popular social-media apps prohibit content that depicts or promotes drug use, but they say they will make allowances for education and awareness. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, said the posts from End Overdose were removed in error and the content has been restored.
A TikTok spokesperson said showing or discussing fentanyl test strips is permissible, but videos promoting unverified testing materials may be removed.
Another challenge: Not all local businesses are comfortable having the kits in their venues.
“No venue wants to be perceived or to actually create an environment which encourages drug use,” said Ariel Palitz, executive director of New York City’s Office of Nightlife, which helped spearhead a campaign to bring free Narcan to bars and was codified into law last fall. “These are legal businesses. We’re talking about illegal substances,” she said, stressing the line between having the kits available and having them used on their premises.
A nonprofit called Always Strive and Prosper (A$AP) Foundation distributes test strip kits to roughly 50 local retail shops, bars and food spots in New York City. A map on its website lists many of the places that carry its kits. The organization was founded in response to the 2015 overdose and death of Steven “A$AP Yams” Rodriguez, one of the founding members of the hip-hop collective A$AP Mob.
The group is also developing instruction cards that don’t use the word “fentanyl” to assuage the concerns of some businesses, said executive director Darryl Phillips, who was a friend of Mr. Rodriguez.
At a pair of hotspots in New York City, the Flower Shop and Little Ways, A$AP Foundation kits are in the bathrooms. At Ray’s, owned by actors Justin Theroux and Nicholas Braun, and at Scarr’s Pizza, the kits are kept in more discreet locations, such as atop a refrigerator or behind the bar respectively.
“You have to put your efforts in as the space that hosts the kits,” said Carla Holguin, general manager at Scarr’s, while standing behind the pizzeria bar where a number of A$AP’s kits were stuffed into a clear pitcher on the shelf. “I think people are surprised when they know we carry it and that it’s free.”
Todd Zack Jr., an R&B artist who lives in Brooklyn and performs at music festivals, said the threat of fentanyl has changed the vibe at clubs and festivals. Mr. Zack lost a friend to an overdose from a pill that contained fentanyl and said he mostly sticks to weed now. But he still has friends and fans he is looking to protect.
“People are extra wary and standoffish,” he said of the shifting energy in nightlife. “It used to just feel more innocent. It used to feel more fun.”
Write to Sara Ashley O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org and Julie Wernau at email@example.com