Eugene DePasquale

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania should legalize test strips that drug users can employ to detect if fentanyl is present as a measure to save lives from overdoses caused by the deadly drug, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.

The test strips are now illegal because they are considered drug paraphernalia, DePasquale said. But, he said, the idea of legalizing them has bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

“Test strips that allow users to determine if fentanyl is present are one of the best overdose prevention measures developed so far,” DePasquale said. “The General Assembly should act to make test strips legal and widely available.”

The number of deaths blamed on overdoses dropped in 2018 from the all-time high in 2017, but there were still 4,492 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 80-100 times stronger than morphine, according to the DEA.

Fentanyl was among the top three deadliest drugs in every county in Pennsylvania in 2017, DePasquale said. Data from county coroners compiled by Overdose Free PA, based at the University of Pittsburgh, found fentanyl was the drug most often involved in overdose deaths in Cambria, Crawford, Lawrence, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, Somerset, Union and Venango counties in 2018.

Legislation to allow the distribution of test strips was introduced in the state House in August by Republican state Rep. James Struzzi of Indiana County.

In a memo to other lawmakers explaining the legislation, Struzzi said it would still be illegal for drug dealers to possess the test strips.

“My legislation will allow the possession of test strips only for personal use to avoid deadly overdoses,” Struzzi said. “As the opioid epidemic reaches catastrophic levels in Pennsylvania, we must continue to make laws and policies that work to save lives.”

Maryland, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have laws in place that allow drug users to use the test strips, said Gary Miller, a spokesman for the auditor general.

The idea of legalizing the test strips may be controversial because people will think the state is condoning drug use, said Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County, who is chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which conducted extensive public hearings on the opioid epidemic as it unfolded across the state in 2016 and 2017.

“The optics are bad,” he said. But Yaw said he would support legislation that would legalize the test strips as a means of preventing overdose deaths. He said allowing people to use the fentanyl test strips would be comparable to the state’s move to make naloxone more available to treat people who are overdosing.

“The bottom line is, we need them alive,” he said. “It’s a reasonable idea.”

Yaw said he’s not heard any discussion about the possibility of moving legislation to legalize the test strips.

Last month, Northumberland County Coroner James Kelley said there had already been 30 overdose deaths in that county in 2019, a total that matches the full year death toll in 2017, which had been the county’s worst year ever for overdose deaths. Most of the deaths in 2019 have involved fentanyl, he said.

Statewide, officials believe the death toll in 2019 will be comparable to the 2018 numbers, said Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the Department of Health.

“Of course, there are still more than two months to go, and a lot of data that still needs to be collected even after the year ends,” he said.

“We do not anticipate a major increase in overdose deaths at this time,” Wardle said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

Overdose deaths by county, 2017 and 2018

County 2018 Overdose Deaths 2017 Overdose Deaths
Cambria 61 87
Crawford 22 24
Lawrence 38 55
Mercer 53 41
Montour 18 16
Northumberland 24 30
Snyder 8 3
Somerset 15 31
Union 3 5
Venango 10 6
Source: Overdose Free PA, University of Pittsburgh

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