‘They don’t want to die.’ Advocates push lawmakers to decriminalize possession of fentanyl test strips

Fentanyl test strips are handed out to people anonymously, in hopes they'll test the drugs...
Fentanyl test strips are handed out to people anonymously, in hopes they'll test the drugs they're about to take for the presence of potentially deadly fentanyl.(WBAY)
Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 5:42 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 25, 2022 at 5:59 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin state lawmakers voted Tuesday afternoon on legislation being seen as a big step in helping people deal with drug addiction and move closer to treatment and recovery.

It’s related to the surge in overdoses and their link to fentanyl that we’ve been reporting on for months.

Tuesday, both the Senate and Assembly passed bills that would decriminalize fentanyl test strips.

They’re thin strips, dipped into a mixture of a small amount of water and a small amount of a drug a person is about to take.

In about one minute, the test strip will form a line indicating if the highly dangerous and potentially deadly drug, fentanyl, is mixed with the drug they’re about to take.

The test strips are viewed as a life-saving tool, but until a law changes, they’re still illegal in Wisconsin because they’re considered drug paraphernalia.

Possessing them could mean being charged with a crime.

Those who help people battling addiction don’t think that’s right.

“Our clients tell us they’re happy to test. They do want to know whether or not fentanyl is in their drug because they don’t want to die,” says Kristen Grimes, director of prevention services at Vivent Health. “They want to be able to keep themselves safe so that they can continue to live. They don’t want to die.”

It’s why Grimes testified before lawmakers about making fentanyl test strips legal.

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Vivent Health, formerly known as the Aids Resource Center of Wisconsin, gives people fentanyl test strips, anonymously, with no questions asked, hoping they’ll test the drugs they’re about to take for the presence of fentanyl.

Last year, Vivent distributed nearly 46,000 test strips at its clinics across the state.

While not required to report the results, more than 4,600 reports did come back, helping provide a snapshot of how much fentanyl is on the streets.

It’s very different as you travel to different regions of the state.

In Green Bay, fentanyl was found the most mixed with heroin.

That’s not surprising since both drugs are opioids and depressants and provide a similar reaction to the user.

But in 34 percent of the drugs testing positive for fentanyl in Green Bay, it was mixed with methamphetamine.

Meth is a stimulant and typically provides the opposite kind of reaction to the body as an opioid.

Just down Interstate 41, at Vivent’s Appleton location, the results were much different than in Green Bay.

There, 70 percent of the time fentanyl was found, it was again mixed with meth.

“A little bit of fentanyl can go a long way compared to an amount of opioid,” says Grimes, explaining how much more potent and deadly fentanyl can be compared to other opioids.

But for the people who used the test strips, she says it make a difference and actually changed people’s behaviors.

“They can do things like using less of the drug. They can just use part of the drug. They can use with a friend to make sure if they do overdose then someone can administer Narcan,” says Grimes. “And they can tell others about it so that the community is aware of the fentanyl that’s in the drug supply.”

It’s called harm reduction, knowing a person is going to use, but isn’t to the point of recovery just yet.

But this keeps them alive in hopes they’ll one day get there.

Drug counselors do see that happen.

“We’ve seen many people. We’ve got a lot of people in our alumni program who are in recovery, who’ve had numerous overdoses, near death experiences, where that was a part of what prompted them into treatment, and then became a part of what got them clean, and they’re doing amazingly well,” says Tina Baeten, a clinical supervisor at the Jackie Nitschke Treatment Center.

The bill, which has had bipartisan support since being proposed, now heads to the governor who has the final say in officially decriminalizing the possession of fentanyl test strips.

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