Phone, keys, wallet, fentanyl test strips – this is the mental checklist recreational users from the raving community tick before heading to their beloved club. Fentanyl’s ubiquity infiltrated bar cubicles, transformed happy dust into pure anxiety, and destroyed festival-goers’ perception on safety.
As fentanyl-laced drugs jeoparised the live music scene, festivals that once frowned upon Narcan – a medicine that reverses opioid overdoses – embraced the nasal spray as if it was a knight in shining armour.
Amid the US overdose crisis that made people fearful of seeing, buying, and taking street drugs, the strips are becoming a DIY, cheap, and easy way to test their stuff.
Old-school tools like ecstasy pill reports and dealers’ “it’s pure” assurance can’t repair the relationship between drugs and users anymore. But the white paper strips are becoming the new condoms – a health tool that empowers people and saves lives.
Though the synthetic opioid is far and away most commonly found as a heroin adulterant, party drugs including cocaine, ecstasy, molly, and fake prescription pills like Xanax and Adderall, are increasingly tainted with fentanyl.
Last year, a fentanyl-laced cocaine outbreak shook New York when nearly one in every ten bags of coke seized by police contained the opioid – a 6% increase compared to 2017. Fentanyl cannot be smelled or spotted with the human eye but is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Although it is medically used as a painkiller, two milligrams is a fatal dose.
In an era where street drugs are contaminated with a fatal substance that’s easy to overdose on, death rates are increasing at a staggering speed.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIDA), 106,000 Americans lost their lives to drug-involved overdoses in 2021. Beyond being an increase of 30% when compared to 2020, the number symbolizes an all-time record for the US.
And the poisonous opioid is responsible for most of them. In 2021, 2,668 New Yorkians died of an overdose, with 80% of deaths attributed to fentanyl.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so harm reductionists repurposed fentanyl strips. Initially used as urine tests, the paper strips got a side job as a substance-checking method when people discovered they could dip them into drug residue.
No longer just a threat to chronic drug users, fentanyl morphed into a danger to occasional drug users. With a ‘don’t be daft, start with a half’ mantra, Americans took the matter in their own hands and made drug testing part of their nightlife ritual.
Little plastic tubes, buffer solutions, and test strips took over club cubicles, New York living rooms, and bar bathrooms to lift the overdose dread off their shoulders.
The process is quite straightforward. You scoop a bit of your drug of choice with a cotton swab, dissolve it in the plastic tube, insert the fentanyl test strip, pull it out, and wait. While the technique differs from one drug to another, one thing is sure – two lines are negative, one is positive.
A few years ago, fentanyl test strips had the scarcity status that toilet paper had when COVID-19 broke.
Available only through harm reduction programs and banned in most states, the DIY drug-checking method needed a few years to bleed into the mainstream.
Now fentanyl test strips are making their way to the dance floor, with non-profit orgs like DanceSafe distributing them.
Nightlife venue owners made them available for everybody who passes through its doors. Even Amazon sells them.
It might be because of their right-in-your-face availability or life-saving perks, but demand for the little white strips is growing. US buying interest increased by 430% in three years, according to Canadian biotech company BTNX, which sells fentanyl test strips.
As new providers started emerging, state officials couldn’t turn a blind eye anymore. In the past year, ten states – including Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama, where hard-line abstinence views are typically favored – have legalized the drug-checking method.
Even the most conservative states like Kansas and Texas are paving the way for legalization, as their Legislatures are flooded with pro-test strips bills.
President Biden is the first president to embrace harm reduction. Fentanyl strips are a key part of his proposed $307 million harm-reduction drug-control strategy.
Despite their status as drug paraphernalia in some US regions, fentanyl test strips are an uncelebrated change in drug policy.
A Johns Hopkins University paper described the fentanyl test strips as a low-cost drug-checking method that “detects the smallest amount of fentanyl” and is the most “accurate at detecting the presence or absence of fentanyl.”
There is no lie in the fact that knowledge is the key factor in harm reduction. An academic paper analysed festival-goers’ behavior after discovering their drugs contained fentanyl. Findings show that only 2.63% of the group refused to discard the substances.
Americans are embracing a quiet revolution. Through test strips’s power, individuals know if their substance has been contaminated and take action to reduce overdose risk.
Netizens are taking over social media platforms to spread awareness about the strips. Dozens of ‘how to use’ tutorials became viral, with some TikTok videos garnering millions of views.
Reddit is also full of discussions about where to find and how to use the test strips, with many harm reduction orgs offering FTS. A festival-goer commented on a free test strips post, saying that he grabbed 100 test strips.
“I just handed them out to everyone I spoke to. Maybe saved a life but even if not, increased awareness is worth every penny spent.”
Other Redditors – including Burning Man festies – are spreading awareness and sharing the goodies with the ones in need.
In theory, fentanyl test strips sound like an all clear drug-checking method – but they are far from it. Unlike professional services, test strips are a low-hanging fruit that relies on users to follow instructions and do it correctly.
For pills like Xanax, OxyContin, and ecstasy, testing one sample is not enough. While one pill might test negative, the other could contain fentanyl.
The same rule of thumb can apply for most street drugs – it’s like testing a chocolate-chip cookie for chocolate.
If you test a piece that is mainly dough, that doesn’t mean the cookie is chocolate-free.
Advanced drug-checking services like Drugs Data and Energy Control, where you mail samples, are more reliable than fentanyl test strips.