The University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy students and their faculty advisor are distributing fentanyl testing strips to people who use street-purchased opioids.
“We have patients coming in who are getting illicit fentanyl off the street, or maybe someone shared medication with them not knowing it has fentanyl in it,” said Amy Bachyrycz, PharmD, RPH, an assistant professor in the UNM College of Pharmacy.
She also says they want to help prevent the illicit fentanyl intake.
Fentanyl isn’t detectable without a test strip, according to the CDC.
CDC says people taking fentanyl-laced drugs are at a greater risk of overdose. Bachyrycz says it is important for fentanyl testing strips to be easily accessible.
Pharmacy students Maria Ybargüengoitia Agüero and Kathryn McNeil often distribute free testing strips during community outreach events and health fairs.
Illicit fentanyl is primarily manufactured in foreign clandestine labs and smuggled into the U.S.
It is often sold alone as well as used as an adulterant. Because of its potency and low cost, drug dealers will often mix fentanyl with other recreational drugs including heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy).
According to UNM Health Sciences, the pharmacy students have attended seven events and engaged with approximately 3,000 people in the past year.
“It was a little bit difficult at first to start the conversation, because we don’t want to imply anything, and we never want to profile anyone,” Bachyrycz said. “So, we usually just try to give them to everybody.”
Health Sciences says the test strips are dipped into drug residue dissolved in water. A single pink line appearing on the left-hand side of the strip indicates that fentanyl has been detected. Two pink lines mean fentanyl has not been detected.
“We encourage everybody to take them, because you never know when it could be useful,” Ybargüengoitia Agüero added.
Studies provided by the health sciences department have shown positive fentanyl test strip results are associated with changes in drug use behavior and perceptions of overdose safety, including taking less of the drug and not taking it at all.
“The goal is harm reduction,” Bachyrycz said. “It’s not a fix to the fentanyl issue; it’s a way to prevent death.”
According to the New Mexico Department of Health, 74% of all overdose deaths in the state in 2019 involved opioids. Preventable opioid overdose deaths increased 457% since 1999 in the U.S., which led public health officials to declare a nationwide opioid overdose epidemic.
But illicit fentanyl – which is primarily manufactured in foreign clandestine labs and smuggled into the U.S. – is often be sold alone as well as used as an adulterant. Because of its potency and low cost, drug dealers will often mix fentanyl with other recreational drugs including heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA.
“Fentanyl is similar to morphine, but is 100 times more potent,” Ybargüengoitia Agüero said.
Fentanyl’s high potency also means that even a small amount can be fatal. If the user isn’t aware that the drug they bought has been adulterated, this could easily lead to an overdose.
“When people take small amounts of it, it can send them into an overdose,” Ybargüengoitia Agüero said. “That’s why we’ve seen such an increase in accidental deaths, because people don’t know that fentanyl is basically in everything.”
Ybargüengoitia Agüero added that it’s important for users to test their illicit drug supply for fentanyl every time, even if the buyer is consistently getting it from the same dealer.
“You could be getting it from the same source, but that source could be getting it from somewhere else, so it’s important to test every time,” she said.
McNeil said while it’s important to raise awareness of this issue in the community at large, it’s especially important to raise awareness of the issue on college campuses.
McNeil also says college students rely on street drugs to stay awake for studying and that they could benefit from the testing.
The group hopes to receive funding from the New Mexico Department of Health soon so they can broaden their efforts, which include preventive educational presentations in addition to distributing testing strips.
“We’re expecting to do a lot more going forward,” Bachyrycz said. “It’s really important for us to educate people about the risk of addiction and exposure. We want to educate people before they even try the drug.”
To can learn more about obtaining test strips or the group’s educational presentations, contact them at [email protected].