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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho legalizes access to fentanyl testing strips

By Rachel Sun Lewiston Tribune

Idahoans will gain access to fentanyl testing strips this year following legislative action on a bipartisan bill to legalize the harm reduction tool previously characterized as drug paraphernalia.

The move could be especially beneficial for people who aren’t established drug users, said Shaun Hogan, a recovery coach at the Latah Recovery Center.

“If what you’re trying to use is fentanyl, you probably don’t need the fentanyl test,” he said. “If what you’re thinking you’re using is not associated with fentanyl, then it could save your life.”

People like college students who are experimenting with drugs but aren’t seeking out fentanyl will likely be one of the biggest groups to make use of fentanyl testing strips, said Norma Jaeger, director of Recovery Idaho. Street drugs and fake pharmaceuticals are often laced with fentanyl, which can easily lead to a fatal overdose.

“I think one of the selling points (for the legislature) was that it could help younger people who are not addicted, who might try some other drug without realizing that it could be contaminated with fentanyl,” she said.

The new law legalizing fentanyl testing strips is set to take effect July 1. Darrell Keim, director of the Latah Recovery Center, said it’s not clear yet if or when recovery centers will be able to stock the test strips.

“The honest answer is we don’t know yet,” Keim said. “The state of Idaho legalized them, but are they going to be paying for them?”

Still, unlike other harm reduction tools such as the opioid reversal drug naloxone, which can cost upwards of $50 for two doses at a pharmacy, fentanyl test strips usually cost a few dollars each. (Several recovery centers and harm reduction groups, including the Latah Recovery Center, provide free naloxone to the public through grant funding.)

However, while Idaho’s bill to legalize fentanyl testing strips passed the House unanimously and faced almost no opposition in the Senate, the Legislature at the same time moved to repeal the Safe Syringe and Needle Exchange Act, first implemented in 2019.

That means safe syringe exchanges like the one adopted by the Latah Recovery Center and others like it will soon be illegal.

“The original interpretation was that we had until June 30,” Keim said. “However, I have seen an email from Health and Welfare stating that they might be implementing that new law quicker. So we don’t know.”

This month, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare removed public access to its page on Safer Syringe Exchange programs, which had included information on Idaho’s programs and CDC data related to the efficacy of the programs, including the fact that research does not show safe syringe programs to increase drug usage.

The legislature’s decision came after a raid of the Idaho Harm Reduction Project’s offices in Caldwell and Boise regarding an investigation of the distribution of drug paraphernalia. At the time of the raid, fentanyl test strips would have also been considered paraphernalia.

“They were (allegedly) passing out things that were not legal in the state of Idaho,” Keim said.

When Idaho first passed the Syringe and Needle Exchange Act, it was championed by sanitation workers concerned about the needle-stick risk of cleaning needles discarded in public spaces.

But, Keim said, recovery centers also embraced the service as an evidence-based harm reduction practice to reduce disease transmission without increasing illegal drug use.

“What I’ve seen,” Hogan said, “(is) they wanted to avoid any possibility of impropriety and thought it was too vague in the legislation. So if they were going to bring it back, it would be with greater clarity as to what can and can’t be done as part of a harm reduction project.”

In March, the Idaho Press quoted Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, saying the legislature needed to repeal the syringe exchange program and come back with something that brought the program back to its original intent.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control show safe syringe program users are five times more likely to enter a drug treatment program, and three times more likely to quit. But, Jaeger said, some opponents of the syringe program also said there wasn’t sufficient data from Idaho showing the program’s benefit.

A problem with that, Jaeger said, is that the syringe program was only implemented in the summer of 2019, meaning the pandemic slowed implementation. Another is that a major goal for the syringe exchange was preventing diseases like hepatitis, HIV and other blood-borne pathogens.

“It’s very difficult always to establish that something you were working to prevent actually got prevented,” she said. “What we do know is that over a million used syringes were returned, and were disposed of safely and properly.”

Although some Legislators have said they plan to reintroduce the safe syringe program, Keim said he worries whether it will actually happen.

“I’m concerned that they’ll just do the first half and not the second half,” he said. “The fact that it’s going to go away will lead to people dying, which is my biggest concern.”