Lifesaver or enabler? New tool allows addicts to detect if deadly fentanyl is in their drugs

A new tool is now being used to fight the soaring overdose death toll linked to fentanyl.

ATLANTA — A new tool is now being used to fight the soaring overdose death toll linked to fentanyl.

It looks like a pregnancy test strip, but it tests for the presence of fentanyl mixed into other illegal drugs such as heroin.

Channel 2′s Tom Regan discovered fentanyl test strips are not without controversy.

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Advocates of the fentanyl test strip, including those in Atlanta, say they're saving lives.

But opponents believe it only enables drug addicts in their destructive habit.

One drug addict Regan spoke to says the strips help her to know if the drug she uses are tainted.

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“I have a family and it scares them to know the next shot may be my last," said the woman who will be identified as Anna throughout the story. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

Anna is a hard-core heroin addict.

She starts her day, like most addicts, shooting up.

Regan watched as she poured a drug into a small container called a “cooker.”

But before she injected, she tested her $20 bag for fentanyl, the synthetic opioid behind a staggering number of overdose deaths in Georgia.

The test strips were originally used to test for fentanyl in urine. They can now also detect trace amounts of fentanyl in other illegal drugs including heroin, meth and cocaine.

Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. A tiny amount, even a few grains, can kill.

“We tell our clients to stop using if there's fentanyl in it," said Dr. Mojgan Zare of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition.

The coalition has a needle-exchange program and provides free overdose-reversing naloxone to drug addicts.

In March, they'll begin handing out fentanyl test strips.

The director told Regan the strips have proven effective in reducing deadly overdoses.

“It has stopped some folks from using and that is a plus on its own,” Zare said.

“So, you think it can save lives?” Regan asked.

“Yes, most definitely," Zare said.

Fentanyl detection has gone high-tech in Boston at an organization called Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education, or AHOPE.

In a government-sanctioned program, AHOPE staff are able to test an addicts’ drugs using a mass spectrometer.

Developed as a counter-terrorism tool for biological or chemical weapons, it's now used to find microscopic levels of fentanyl laced in other drugs.

The device not only detects fentanyl, but also gauges the amount present and the type of fentanyl.

“If a fentanyl analogue is found that is really, really potent, we will sit down and say, ‘This is what we know about this particular analogue, this is what to expect,’" Sarah Mackin at AHOPE said.

While advocates say fentanyl test strips provide critical information to addicts, federal health officials believe they enable drug abuse and provide a false sense of security.

“The thought that a person who has a chronic brain disease, who is shooting injectable drugs, is going to be able to safely dose themselves in a rational way is preposterous," said Adm. Brett Giroir at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Just knowing alone has stopped people from using," Zare said.

Anna is waiting to learn if her dope is laced with fentanyl.

If two lines appear on the test strip, it's fentanyl-free, but Anna’s strip shows only one line.

“That means there's fentanyl in there," Anna said.

“Now that you've discovered there's fentanyl in it, will you still shoot it?” Regan asked.

“Sure. I'm going to be very, very careful with it, though. Yeah, I’ll still shoot it,” Anna said.

Anna told Regan she will only inject a small amount at first and will be sure to have a friend close by with Narcan if she begins to overdose.

“I've lost a lot of friends, and I have brought a lot of people back from fentanyl,” Anna said.

She left to go shoot up, and perhaps, in the future, will pass along a message to other drug addicts: “It’ll make us more aware of what we (are) buying that could easily kill us in a heartbeat,” Anna said.