Pictured Above: A positive fenanyl test strip |. harmreduction.org photo

In the waning days of 2021, the Suffolk County Legislature approved a plan to include fentanyl test strips along with naloxone (Narcan) kits distributed at county trainings on administering the opiate antidote.

These test strips, which have in the past been controversial but are gaining acceptance as the deadly synthetic opiate has made its way into the U.S. drug supply, are designed so that drug users can test their drugs to determine if they’ve been laced with fentanyl.

It’s a practice known as “harm reduction,” giving drug users the tools to protect themselves from death, which had its genesis in needle exchange programs as the HIV epidemic spread through New York in the 1980s.

“What we are offering through this new policy is a harm reduction strategy,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, who sponsored the legislation.  “Addiction is a disease that must not be allowed to become a death sentence, which, as more and more fentanyl has been released into our communities, it has become for many who might otherwise have recovered if given a chance.”

Eight other legislators co-sponsored the legislation, including Legislator Bridget Fleming of the South Fork.

This action comes several months after cocaine laced with fentanyl killed six people in Greenport, most of whom worked in the restaurant industry there, over the span of a few days in August of this year.

It also comes just days after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency announced it had seized enough fentanyl in 2021 to deliver a fatal dose to every resident of the United States, due to “criminal drug networks in Mexico. These groups are harnessing social media platforms to bring drugs laced with fentanyl and fake prescription pills into American homes with one click on a smartphone,” according to the agency.

Fentanyl is estimated by the National Institutes of Health to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics reported on Nov. 17 that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5 percent from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before. The CDC reported that 64 percent of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, a 50 percent jump from the prior year. By comparison, Covid-19 killed about 500,000 U.S. residents in the same time period.

While the current jump is alarming, it comes after a nearly decade-long increase in synthetic opioid deaths, which were 12 times higher in 2019 than in 2013, according to the CDC.

In April of 2021, the CDC announced that federal funding to local substance abuse prevention agencies may now be used to purchase rapid fentanyl test strips “in an effort to help curb the fentanyl-driven spike in drug overdose deaths.”

The Suffolk County legislation will require the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to include fentanyl test strips with naloxone kits distributed during department trainings on how to use the opioid antidote.

“Opioids kill. That is why I pushed for the county to become certified to provide naloxone trainings that put this life-saving antidote in more hands. Fentanyl kills, that is why I am pushing for increased access to test strips, which will give this life-saving tool greater reach,” said Ms. Hahn in a Dec. 23 statement on the legislation. “Allowing users the ability to know if they are about to put a drug in their body that also contains fentanyl will save lives and begin to reduce the increasing overdose deaths devastating our community.”

Fentanyl, which is a depressant, is particularly deadly for users of stimulants, whose bodies may not have built up a resistance to less potent opioids, which may have played a role in the the deaths on the North Fork earlier this year.

Ms. Hahn’s bill now goes to County Executive Steve Bellone for his signature within the next 15 days. Once implemented, the Department of Health will begin including fentanyl test strips with the doses of naloxone it already provides to people who complete ongoing training programs.

“The Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence commends Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn and Suffolk County government for addressing the tragic realities of the duel pandemic of the opioid crisis fueled by fear and anxieties of Covid-19, by providing the need for widespread harm reduction measures to reduce the number of fatal opioid overdoses,” said its Executive Director Steve Chassman, LCSW, CASAC. “The distribution of fentanyl test strips and continued widespread distribution of naloxone meets this public health challenge head-on, with the sole and primary objective of saving lives in Suffolk County. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures to aid so many individuals and families struggling with opioid use disorder.”

Ms. Hahn has been at the forefront of Suffolk County’s efforts to curb opioid deaths since she joined the legislature in 2012, when she sponsored legislation to begin public Narcan trainings and to equip county police officers with Narcan. Her recent efforts include addressing treatment of people whose lives have been saved by Narcan, working to address post-sports injury opioid addition and a November legislation to restrict the county’s use of between $87 million and $107 million its expecting to receive in a settlement with opioid distributors over the next 18 years to fight substance abuse.

In 2019, a report issued by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that the opioid epidemic has caused $8.2 billion of dollars in damage to Long Island’s economy in 2017, in addition to taking the lives of hundreds of residents in that year alone.

The report found that 617 people had died of opioid overdoses on Long Island in 2017, 424 of them in Suffolk County, which that year had the second highest per capita rate of opioid-related deaths of any county in the state, just behind Sullivan County..

“This report shows that a healthy economy requires a healthy community and without a solid foundation, you can’t grow for the future,” said Ron Deutsch, Executive Director of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “We cannot continue to view addiction as a personal problem, it is a community problem and we hope this report spurs us on to work collectively to address this costly epidemic.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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