We’re talking about a situation where people are so far down the wrong road, that we’re just simply trying to prevent them from dying — DOH Policy Director Aryan Showers
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When Michelle Peterson met Robin, he had struggled with drug use on and off.
At his best, she said, he was “very charming,” loved deeply and liked helping people, even to a fault.
“He was very welcoming and open minded and I was able to talk to him and work through a lot of my own crap,” Peterson said. “And we got closer for that.”
Peterson added, “It’s a very hard place to be in when the person you love needs help.”
After an overdose in May of 2021, Robin was set to go to treatment. Peterson said this time seemed different and for the first time in a long time, she had hope.
The day before Robin was set to leave for rehab, he died from a fentanyl overdose after the drug was mixed with heroin he had bought.
“It was such a shock and you never think it’s going to happen to you. And it hit me like a freight train,” Peterson said.
The 34-year-old was one of at least 1,215 people to die from a fentanyl overdose in the state since 2019, a number that Department of Health officials say is provisional and will only rise. In that same time, officials say more than 12,000 people have been saved from a drug overdose by Narcan, an opioid reversal drug that is sprayed into a person’s nose.
Now, with a change to the Harm Reduction Act, DOH officials are giving users another tool to keep themselves safe – fentanyl test strips.
“They want to know what’s in their substances, they want to be safe, they don’t want to overdose,” he said. “… The second we were able to offer them they started flying off the shelves.”
DOH has given out 15,000 fentanyl test strips since the changes took effect in mid-May and Swatek said they’ve already ordered another 30,000.
Peterson said she is unsure if Robin would’ve tested his drugs but it’s impossible to say because he never had the option, having died more than a year before test strips were available.
She said anything that can save others from the pain she has felt is a good thing.
“Everything that happened after (his death) was like, just being in a bad movie you can’t turn off,” Peterson said. “… I kept waiting for him, my brain just started playing games with me. I didn’t want to accept that he was gone.”
Syringe demand down
Some say the test almost always comes up positive when testing heroin due to the pervasiveness of fentanyl in the local supply. For those not intending to use fentanyl, drug users say, the test strips save lives, particularly for people who also use stimulants.
State health officials say they now face an entirely different hurdle.
DOH Policy Director Aryan Showers said the department has seen a 40% drop off in users coming into their clinics for syringes as many switch to fentanyl, which is most often smoked in illicit pill form – known as “blues.”
The concern is, she said, that if people don’t come in for syringes they miss out on other supplies like Narcan and test strips as well as infectious disease testing and recovery services.
“There are many different things that, over time, they have the option of getting involved with that are good for their trajectory,” Showers said.
Swatek said DOH is seeking a rules change to allow the distribution of smoking supplies like foil and pipe covers, which could help prevent diseases like Hepatitis C, increase engagement with users and steer people away from the risks associated with injecting drugs.
If approved, Swatek said the changes to the rule could take effect in the coming months.
Test strips save lives
Ashley Charzuk, founder of NM Harm Reduction Collaborative, avoids the engagement issue altogether by delivering the supplies herself.
On Friday morning Charzuk drags a cart brimming with fresh syringes, test strips, Narcan, needle disposal containers and things like socks, water and snacks around Phil Chacon Park.
Charzuk said the collaborative started out with 600 fentanyl test strips and goes through about 200 a month. Initially, she said people thought the strips were faulty because they all came up positive.
“They were like, ‘we don’t get it, maybe we might be using them wrong,’” Charzuk said. She said they were using them right, fentanyl just happens to be in almost all heroin nowadays.
Charzuk said the strips are most beneficial to those who are using other drugs like ecstasy or cocaine, where fentanyl comes as more of a surprise. But they give them to anyone; dealers wanting to test their product, treatment centers to give to outgoing patients and those heading out for a weekend of partying.
At the park, two men and a woman gladly take several strips, calling them “the difference” between someone dying or not. They said they don’t use fentanyl but do use the test strips to keep themselves safe and give to friends.
One of the men, who goes by Loki, said he has tried and failed to bring someone back from a fentanyl overdose with Narcan, a common refrain among users.
All three said they had lost someone to a fentanyl overdose.
Narcan need up
Charzuk said the collaborative has seen fewer deaths than back in March, when they would lose up to 10 clients to a fentanyl overdose every month. But they have been giving out more Narcan because overdoses have recently mounted.
She said that’s because, seemingly, the fentanyl has gotten stronger.
Charzuk said she is seeing a lot of younger people, some only 15, starting to use fentanyl and wanting Narcan. Some teens ask for it for their friends, and parents ask for it for their children.
Several people with their dogs and belongings scattered about asked Charzuk for snacks, needles and Narcan. A man who went by James lit up when he heard there were test strips onboard.
He said the test strips have saved him more than once.
“I’ve had a couple of them come up negative, which was good. And then I’ve had a couple, where I’ve gotten (drugs) from certain people, it comes back positive. I won’t go through those people again,” he said. “I won’t do fentanyl, I refuse. I make sure what I’m getting is actually what I’m getting.”
James was haunted by the death of his fiancee’s little brother, who he said died after taking one hit from a fentanyl pill. He said the brother laid there in plain sight for hours before anyone noticed.
“I’m against it fully,” James said defiantly about the use of fentanyl, as he pulled several Narcan doses out of his backpack. “I try to keep myself prepared because even though I don’t do it, there’s people all over the place that do.”
James turned to Brandy, a woman with reddish hair and emerald green eyes. He showed her how to use a test strip.
Brandy said she had no use for them.
She got hooked on painkillers after being struck by a semi-tractor trailer five years ago and moved to heroin. She said she started smoking fentanyl pills, or “blues,” a few years ago to keep away from injecting fentanyl-laced heroin.
Somewhere in between, Brandy said, she became homeless.
Another man, who went by Face, smoked a fentanyl pill from a metal tube. He nodded out with his Papillon “Suzie Q” leashed to his leg.
Face said he started using after recently being hit by a car. He sported a large, fresh scar on his belly above a tattoo of the word “Forsaken.” He said he was a recovering addict and was denied painkillers in the hospital.
“I actually ripped the IVs out of my arm and left the hospital because they wouldn’t give me anything,” Face said. Since then, 10 weeks ago, he has been on blues.
Going forward, Showers said the DOH wants to take Harm Reduction to another level: trying to help people before they get to the point of needing syringes, Narcan or test strips.Before they end up like Face, Brandy and the others at Phil Chacon Park.
She said that means bringing overdose prevention education to kids and expanding school-based health centers with a wide range of services.
“I think that’s going to help a lot. … We’re talking about a situation where people are so far down the wrong road, that we’re just simply trying to prevent them from dying. And hoping that they have the internal drive to eventually get better,” Showers said. “But we also need to take the approach that we should be going upstream, we should try to prevent this from happening in our communities. And you do that with kids.”