Pennsylvania will see free drug testing kits in 2023

Drug and alcohol programs across the state could take the next step in providing free drug testing kits to Pennsylvanians because of a new law.

Governor Tom Wolf recently signed Law 111 or the Controlled Substances, Drugs, Devices, and Cosmetics Act of 1972, which amends the Act so that drug test kits are no longer classified as drug paraphernalia. The law goes into effect in January, 60 days after signing on November 3.

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

The law is intended to legalize the possession of fentanyl test kits statewide. U Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the groups saw fentanyl drug testing kits decriminalized last August due to the mayor’s executive orders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl, a type of cheap-to-make synthetic opioid, is one of the leading causes of drug overdose death.

The CDC reports that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have been found in counterfeit pharmaceutical pills and heroin. But the health agency also notes that fentanyl has appeared in the supply of illegal stimulants, so people who use cocaine or methamphetamine can unknowingly take a lethal dose of opioids.

Jennifer Smith, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), said the bill’s wording was intentionally broad so it could cover many chemical testing kits.

“Because the supply of drugs is constantly changing, … there is potential for the development of additional drug testing tools in the future,” Smith said.

She said a veterinary tranquilizer called xylazine is an example of a “substance that is new” to Pennsylvania’s drug supply. Advocates, such as the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network, have said the xylazine test could spread like the fentanyl test in the future if it meets accuracy standards in the United States.

“We intend to offer [fentanyl test kits] for free, just like we did through our naloxone distribution program,” Smith said. “We’re going to need some time to develop a contract with the provider of those lanes and work out a process for how people will make requests.”

Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, is a medication currently distributed free of charge by the state and NEXT Distro to combat drug overdoses.

Ryan Hogan is the director of Luzerne/Wyoming Drug and Alcohol Programs. He said his office, in partnership with the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, has helped train more than 1,000 first responders on how to handle drug overdoses in the past two years. The office also plans to distribute fentanyl testing kits early next year.

“And the lifespan of a first responder is pretty loosely defined,” Hogan said. “It’s not just your EMS officer or the police … It could be anyone who might be interacting with someone who is at high risk — or at risk — of an overdose.”

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

“Every year we see a large number of fatal overdoses,” she said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated the problem.

According to the Pennsylvania Attorney General, 5,168 people died of opioid overdoses in the state in 2021.

Durkin said the overdose-reversing drug naloxone has been in the county for about five years. The drug is included in recovery kits that include drugs and alcohol treatment. She said her office has learned of several people whose lives have been saved by naloxone thanks to 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 position has always been, give them enough recovery-related resources, give them the lifesaving support they need, and eventually they’ll come and decide they’re ready for recovery.”

“We don’t want more people dying from opioid use disorders that don’t need to die.”

Other harm reduction strategies

Hogan said that in addition to expanding access to drug treatment in Luzerne and Wyoming counties, his office is also trying to minimize the impact of drug overdoses on the hospital and jail systems.

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

Carla Safronsky, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network (PAHRN), shares a similar view. Her organization began advocating for safer drug use a little more than a year ago, and she credits pressure from groups like hers for helping to influence Gov. Wolf’s recent drug testing kit legislation.

Sofronsky said PAHRN is pushing for other changes in the harm reduction law, such as statewide syringe maintenance programs. Public health nonprofits like Prevention Point, which already operates in Philly and Pittsburgh, offer clean syringes and dispose of used needles to prevent disease outbreaks.

“In places like Luzerne County, Montour County, Cambria County, Lackawanna County, we’re seeing skyrocketing rates of infectious disease,” Sofronsky said, “and we’re one of 11 states that don’t have evidence-based programs like the syringes. programs across the state.”

Diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C can be transmitted through shared needles, and groups such as PAHRN see needle-cleaning programs as a cheaper and easier alternative to treating long-term, serious health problems.

“It costs $400,000 to provide a person with HIV medication and treatment over a lifetime, and a pack of syringes costs less than $2,” Safronsky said.

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

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