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Pennsylvania to see free drug testing kits in 2023

Some harm reduction kits contain drug and alcohol resources as well as naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversing medication. Soon, more statewide groups will be able to distribute resources kits with drug testing kits for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
Tom Riese
Some harm reduction kits contain information on how to get help with a drug or alcohol addiction, as well as naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversing medication. Soon, more statewide groups will be able to distribute resources with drug testing kits for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

Drug and alcohol programs throughout the state can take the next steps in securing free drug testing kits for Pennsylvanians because of a new law.

Governor Tom Wolf recently signed Act 111 or the “Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetic Act,” which amends a law from 1972 so drug testing kits are no longer classified as drug paraphernalia. The law goes into effect in January, 60 days after its Nov. 3 signing.

Experts say harm reduction efforts in the commonwealth have grown in recent years as opioid overdose deaths have increased.

The law is intended to legalize possession of testing kits for fentanyl statewide. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, groups saw drug testing kits for fentanyl decriminalized last August due to mayoral executive orders. Fentanyl, a type of cheap-to-manufacture synthetic opioid, is one of the leading causes of drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC reports that synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been found in counterfeit pharmaceutical pills and the heroin drug supply. But the health agency also notes that fentanyl has turned up in the illicit stimulant drug supply, so people using cocaine or methamphetamine could unknowingly take a fatal opioid dose.

Jennifer Smith, Secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), said the bill’s language was intentionally broad, so that it could cover testing kits for many chemicals.

“Because the drug supply is ever-changing, ... there is a potential for additional drug testing tools to be developed in the future,” Smith said.

A veterinary tranquilizer called xylazine is an example of an “emerging substance” in the Pennsylvania drug supply, she said. Advocates like those with the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network said a xylazine test could be circulated in the future like the one for fentanyl, as long as it meets accuracy standards in the United States.

“We intend to offer [fentanyl test kits] at no cost, just like we have done through our naloxone distribution program,” Smith said. “It does take us a little bit of time to develop a contract with a supplier of those strips and to work out the process for how people will make the requests.”

Naloxone, commonly known by name brand Narcan, is a medication that is currently distributed for free by the state and NEXT Distro to reverse narcotic overdoses.

Ryan Hogan is the director of Luzerne/Wyoming Drug and Alcohol Programs. He said his office, in a partnership with the Luzerne County District Attorney, has helped train over 1,000 first responders how to reverse a drug overdose over the last two years. The office also plans to distribute fentanyl testing kits sometime early next year.

“And ‘first responder’ is kind of defined loosely,” Hogan said. “It’s not just your EMS or police officer … It can be anybody who may interface with somebody who’s high risk – or at-risk – of an overdose.”

“Things got worse before they got better” in Northeast Pennsylvania, said Barbara Durkin, director of Lackawanna/Susquehanna Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs. As in other partnerships, the two counties operate under a single agency to combine resources.

“We were seeing a large number of fatal overdoses every year,” she said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to exacerbate the problem.

According to Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, 5,168 people in the state died from opioid overdose deaths in 2021.

Durkin said overdose-reversing naloxone has been distributed within the counties for about five years. The medication is included in recovery kits that include drug and alcohol treatment resources. She said her office has learned of several people whose lives were saved by naloxone because of their recovery kits.

Durkin knows that harm reduction can be a controversial topic.

“But you can’t force someone to get sober,” Durkin said. “My stance has always been: provide them with enough recovery-related resources, give them the life-saving supports that they need as well, and eventually they will come around and decide that they’re ready for recovery.”

“We don’t want to see any more individuals die from an opioid use disorder that don’t need to die.”

Other harm reduction strategies

Hogan said that in addition to increasing access to drug treatment in Luzerne and Wyoming counties, his office also tries to minimize the impact of drug overdoses on the hospital and prison systems.

Among other new plans, Hogan referenced a program that utilizes certified recovery specialists in what’s called the “Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative” in Wyoming County, which he said will soon be introduced in Luzerne. Officers can contact Hogan’s office, which can lead to dropping charges against offenders if they complete six months of drug and alcohol treatment instead.

Carla Sofronski, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network (PAHRN), has a similar stance. Her organization began advocating for safer drug use policy a little over a year ago, and she believes pressure from groups like hers helped influence Gov. Wolf’s recent drug testing kit legislation.

Sofronski said that PAHRN is pushing for other harm reduction law changes, like syringe service programs statewide. Public health nonprofits like Prevention Point, which already has operations in Philly and Pittsburgh, offer clean syringes and also dispose of used needles in an effort to prevent disease outbreaks.

“In places like Luzerne County, Montour, Cambria, Lackawanna, we are looking at infectious disease rates that are through the roof,” Sofronski said, “and we are one of 11 states that are not implementing evidence-based programs such as syringe service programs through the entire state.”

Diseases like HIV and hepatitis C can be spread through sharing needles, and groups like PAHRN see clean needle programs as a cheaper and easier alternative to treating long term serious health problems.

“It costs $400,000 to supply somebody with medications and treatment for HIV in a lifetime, and it costs less than $2.00 for a pack of syringes,” Sofronski said.

The Lackawanna/Susquehanna 24/7 treatment hotline can be reached at 570-840-8475.

The Luzerne/Wyoming drug and alcohol department can be reached at 570-826-8790.

You can find contact information for your county drug and alcohol department here.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org
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