Fentanyl Test Strips: Is Harm Reduction Causing More Harm?

In Uncategorized by Derek Swain

Fentanyl test strips are an affordable way to decrease overdose deaths caused by fentanyl. Since 2014, no drug has caused more overdose deaths than fentanyl – a synthetic opioid 50x more powerful than heroin. As a prescription, fentanyl is used for post-surgery relief or cancer patients with chronic pain. On the black market, fentanyl is routinely mixed into other drugs like cocaine, heroin, meth, MDMA, and pain pills. Fentanyl is also pressed into shapes that resemble other pain pills. As a result, many people overdose on fentanyl without realizing they are using it. 


In 2021, a record breaking 100,000 people died from drug overdoses. More than 60% of those involved fentanyl. To combat this problem, several companies began making fentanyl test strips. These strips allow someone to test pill or any substance for fentanyl. They are also very affordable since they cost only $1 to make. One local Portland bar has begun giving away these test strips for free. According to Josh Davis, the bar’s owner, in 3 days he’s already had 160 customers take one of these free test strips. When questioned about the possible controversy around giving these away, Davis responded that he’s not condoning drug use, “it’s harm reduction, that’s it.”


Products like test strips are part of the Harm Reduction Model, which aims to reduce the negative impact drugs have on a person and community. The most well known example of harm reduction is Naloxone, a prescription that can almost instantly reverse an opioid overdose. Another harm reduction method includes needle exchange programs. These allow IV drug users to exchange dirty used needles for clean ones, which minimizes both the spread of STIs, and the amount of dirty dangerous needles present in neighborhoods or near schools. 


Understandably, harm reduction is highly controversial. Many would argue that harm reduction is nothing more than a mechanism that enables drug use and addiction, and that the best way to avoid a drug related fatality is to not use drugs in the first place. What’s important to understand is that harm reduction does not want to encourage drug use. It simply tries to stop drugs from killing people. Harm reduction accepts that some people are going to use drugs and tries to prevent drug-related deaths. 


Fentanyl test strips like the ones in Portland have become widely available across the Bay Area in California. However, the same laws that created the war on drugs in the 1980’s also classified testing devices like fentanyl test strips as drug paraphernalia, and made possession of them an arrestable offense. Right now in 22 states drug paraphernalia includes “testing equipment used, intended for use, or fashioned specifically for use in identifying, or in analyzing the strength, effectiveness or purity of controlled substances.”

Ten states created state laws allowing the legal use and possession of testing strips, which points to a clear need for harm reduction. If the war on drugs is about saving lives from drugs, should harm reduction methods like fentanyl test strips be more available? 

If you know someone struggling with fentanyl, click here to learn more, or call 503-850-2474.  


  1. https://www.dea.gov/onepill 
  2. https://legislativeanalysis.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Fentanyl-Teststrips-FINAL-1.pdf 
  3. https://www.kgw.com/article/news/local/star-bar-portland-free-fentanyl-test-strips-overdose-deaths/283-062d94b3-f53f-45d3-88e4-9488ead8e2ac
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2021/20211117.htm