A new Tennessee law signed by Gov. Bill Lee during the recent legislative session decriminalized the possession of fentanyl test strips, which can rapidly detect the potent synthetic opioid responsible for a continued surge in drug overdoses across the Chattanooga region.
Matthew Parriott, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said the state is working on a plan to distribute test strips in the near future. Until then, tests can be purchased online or obtained through some groups that provide other harm-reduction strategies, such as needle exchanges.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, meaning that even a small amount can cause an overdose, and most people who use fentanyl-laced drugs do not know. Research shows the test strips can help those who use illicit drugs avoid overdoses by allowing them to make more informed decisions.
Tennessee joins a growing number of states to decriminalize the test strips, which were previously considered illegal drug paraphernalia, in the face of a nationwide surge in drug overdoses fueled by fentanyl. A similar bill in Georgia is awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp's signature.
Overdose deaths in the U.S. grew by 28.5% in the 12 months ending April 2021, compared to the same period a year earlier, according to estimates in a December report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that same time frame, overdose deaths in Tennessee rose by 50.1% - representing the fifth-largest increase in the nation - according to the report.
While pharmaceutical fentanyl is sometimes used to treat severe pain in health care settings, illicitly manufactured fentanyl is increasingly added to other drugs on the illegal market because its potency makes the drugs both cheaper and more powerful.
Debra Clark, regional overdose prevention specialist with the Hamilton County Coalition, said the number of overdoses in the region is growing in large part because no illicit drug is safe from fentanyl contamination.
"At this point, they are finding it in everything. They're putting it in the counterfeit pills, of course, but they are also mixing it with the stimulants - so they're mixing it with cocaine, they're putting it in meth. They're also mixing it in marijuana," Clark said.
The Georgia Department of Public Health recently released data showing that between early February and mid-March, at least 66 emergency department visits in the state involved the use of cocaine, methamphetamine, crack, heroin, painkillers and cannabis products that were "likely laced with fentanyl," according to a news release.
The Hamilton County Coalition will host a pop-up educational event Tuesday marking the first National Fentanyl Awareness Day. The event will take place at the coalition building at 5721 Marlin Road.
Attendees will have a chance to learn more about the dangers of fentanyl and available resources, such as medication lockboxes, the opioid antidote naloxone and overdose prevention training.
The coalition does not currently offer fentanyl testing strips.