At Cleveland's Urban Kutz Barbershop, customers can flip through magazines while they wait or help themselves take drug tests from a box on a table with a grim message: “Your medications may contain fentanyl. Please take free test strips.”
Owner Waverly Willis has been handing out strips for years at his barbershop, hoping to protect others from unintentional exposure to the highly potent synthetic opioid wreaking havoc across the US. and often secretly mixed with other illegal drugs.
“When I turn them off, they fly out the door,” said Willis, who proudly hands out about 30 strips a week as part of The Urban Barber Association, a Cleveland organization that provides health education to the community through barbershops. local.
Nearly 18 years into his own sobriety from drugs, Willis isn't shy about making the strips available. He figures he'd be dead if fentanyl was that prevalent when he was using it.
Fentanyl has caused overdose deaths in the US since 2016, and that's not changing as the cheapest and deadliest synthetic opioid continues to be depleted in the drug supply. About 75,000 of the nearly 110,000 overdose deaths of 2022 could be linked to fentanyl, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Legalizing test strips could lower those numbers, they say advocates, saving lives by helping more people understand how deadly their drugs could be.
Until this spring, the use of the strips was technically illegal in Ohio. It has joined at least 20 other states whose lawmakers formally decriminalized stripping since Rhode Island became the first in 2018. Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Kentucky and Mississippi also followed suit this year.
The CDC recommends fentanyl test strips as a low-cost means to help prevent drug overdoses. They can detect fentanyl in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and many other drugs, whether in pills, powders, or injectables.
Yet these little slips of paper are still considered illegal in some states, prohibited by drug paraphernalia laws dating back to the drug war era of the 1970s, long before fentanyl began to leak. in the country's drug supply. Every state except Alaska had an anti-paraphernalia law on the books in the mid-1980s, making materials used to test and analyze illicit substances illegal.
Increasingly, the strips are now seen as a potential lifesaver.
Rodney Olinger, a resident of Newark, Ohio, has been using methamphetamine for eight years. The 45-year-old receives four to five fentanyl test strips weekly from Newark Homeless Outreach and calls them a "blessing." He credits the strips with helping to ensure that he and his fiancée, who he also wears, stay alive.
“It's very scary,” Olinger said of fentanyl. "Just a little could kill you."
While the strips may not prevent drug use overall, they allow testers to pause if a strip returns a positive result, possibly encouraging them to reconsider drug use and seek help, said Sheila Vakharia of the organization national nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks to shape US drug policy.
"You never know if a fentanyl test strip can keep someone alive long enough for them to make that decision for themselves," he said.
The CDC says that any drug that dissolves in water can be tested. The strip is immersed in the solution for about 15 seconds, left for a few minutes, and is positive for fentanyl if a single pink line appears. Two pink lines is a negative result.
Strips can often be obtained from advocacy groups, state and local health departments, or purchased online.
Where strips are illegal, the drive to change the law continues.
In Kansas, lawmakers debated through April whether to legalize the strips. But there was never any debate for Kansas mother Brandy Harris, who lost her 21-year-old son Sebastian Sheahan to a fentanyl overdose in April 2022. Addicted since the age of 13, he was first prescribed opioids after being hit by a truck.
Friends and family knew Sheahan as "big-hearted" and "goofy" with a soft spot for abused animals. He was open about her addiction problems and had been clean for three years before he died after a relapse.
Harris believes her son would still be alive if he had test strips showing what he was ingesting. “I think if they were available, at least one person would be saved,” Harris said. "And that's the main target, at least one person."
The Governor of Kansas recently signed a bipartisan bill decriminalizing stripping effective July 1.
Montana and other states are considering similar legislation. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas recently dropped opposition to decriminalizing the strips, citing a "better understanding" of how they prevent opioid deaths.
And in Pennsylvania, Republican state Rep. Jim Struzzi lost his brother to a drug overdose in 2014 and lobbied his colleagues for years to remove the stigma from the strips.
"Fentanyl isn't going to ask you if you're a Democrat or a Republican before it kills you," said Struzzi, who sponsored state legislation legalizing test strips in January.
The change in the way political leaders view the strips has advocacy groups, health departments and outreach programs optimistic. Further legalization opens the doors to more funding, including for strips and public education campaigns.
The SOAR Initiative, a Columbus, Ohio-based nonprofit that fights overdose deaths, distributes about 5,000 strips each month, according to CEO Jessica Warner.
SOAR mails the strips to anonymous recipients, both individuals and large distributors. Distributing them never brought any legal consequences in Ohio even before.
In fact, prosecution for possession of the strips does not appear to be occurring anywhere in the US, according to Jonathan Woodruff of the Association for Legislative Analysis and Public Policy, which tracks drug laws across the country. He said possession of drug paraphernalia is a misdemeanor in most states and police may now be more attuned to the lifesaving benefits of the strips.
Northeast of Boston, Police Lt. Sarko Gergerian of the Winthrop Police Department has boxes stacked in his office.
Legalized in Massachusetts in 2018, the strips go into "survival kits" that his department, as part of the Law Enforcement and Community Assisted Recovery Program, provides to those struggling with substance use, as well as to recovery coaches and social workers for distribution.
Gergerian calls it a "victory" when a life is saved, not the arrest of someone struggling with addiction.
“Can you imagine if your child was addicted to a substance and wasn't ready to quit?” Gergerian posed. “We need to keep them alive. Anything else is immoral."