Fentanyl is killing Granite Staters. But the tools to test for it are illegal.

By: - February 17, 2023 6:30 am
A closeup of a small drug baggie in a person's hand

Under current state law, fentanyl testing strips – which can detect the presence of fentanyl in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and pills – are characterized as drug paraphernalia. (Bill Oxford | Getty Images)

This story was updated on Feb. 20, 2023, at 2:10 p.m. with additional information about syringe exchange programs.

As the deadly fentanyl crisis rages on, Gov. Chris Sununu has made his concerns known – in press conferences and campaigns dedicated to the scourge, and during a national CBS News appearance.

Last June, he spoke of fentanyl being mixed with Adderall, Xanax, marijuana, and vape cartridges. The powerful synthetic opioid is “killing our citizens,” he said. 

He later announced a new public awareness campaign called “No Safe Experience,” focused on educating young people and families about fentanyl in counterfeit pills and illicit drugs.

And yet, the very testing equipment that could help people detect the presence of fentanyl in their drug supply, and in turn save lives, is illegal in New Hampshire. 

Under current state law, fentanyl testing strips – which can detect fentanyl in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and pills – are characterized as drug paraphernalia. Someone found with testing strips who is not associated with a syringe exchange program can be charged with a misdemeanor, facing up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,000. 

Death statistics recently released by New Hampshire officials show 434 people are confirmed to have died from a drug overdose in 2022. The majority were fentanyl related. 

Nationally, the Drug Enforcement Administration says fentanyl seizures in 2022 totaled more than 379 million potentially deadly doses, exceeding the U.S. population.

Current New Hampshire law ‘hampers’ drug-checking 

Two bills up for consideration in the House of Representatives would decriminalize fentanyl test strips and other drug-checking equipment. 

Democratic Reps. David Meuse and Amanda Bouldin, sponsors of House Bill 470, say New Hampshire “hampers” drug-checking efforts via its current law, arguing people could use drugs more safely and with less risk of overdose if they have broader access to testing equipment. 

Currently, only syringe exchange programs in New Hampshire are allowed to disseminate strips to people accessing their services. Program participants, who are issued identification cards, are a protected group when it comes to possessing testing supplies.

In written testimony about his own bill, Meuse asked lawmakers if it was their son or daughter with a bottle of mystery pills sold to them on the street, “wouldn’t you want them to be able to perform a quick, inexpensive test that would let them know for sure?”

Lauren McGinley, executive director of the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition, told the House Criminal Justice and Safety Committee last month the “comprehensive” bill proposed by Meuse and Bouldin would allow the state to create a robust drug-testing system like its neighbor in Massachusetts. People would be able to test not just for fentanyl, she said, but other contaminants that “I believe could do more harm than what fentanyl has caused us in the past decade.”

She warned of xylazine, a tranquilizer for large animals that isn’t reactive to Narcan and creates wounds on people’s bodies. 

“We don’t know what we should be most scared of,” McGinley said of the state’s current drug supply.

State Police Capt. Bill Bright told state representatives he and his colleagues are “sympathetic” to the mission of the bill, and would consider a more narrow scope specific to detecting the presence of fentanyl or specific substances. He voiced concerns that drug traffickers could use the equipment for “nefarious purposes,” like determining potency.  

Removing certain language in state law around paraphernalia packaging and containers, Bright added, could hinder investigators trying to build probable cause in criminal cases. He also questioned the feasibility of a public drug-testing system if the testing equipment is legal, but the drug sample is not. 

CDC encourages use of drug-testing equipment 

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire is engaging in public outreach in support of the effort, noting both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association encourage the distribution of harm-reduction tools like fentanyl testing strips. 

Frank Knaack, policy director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, views HB 470 as an “opportunity to build on harm reduction successes,” such as the authorization of syringe exchange programs and the expanded availability of Narcan. He called fentanyl testing strips “a tool that can save lives.”

More than 30 states have legalized fentanyl testing strips. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently changed his position on them, saying he supported their decriminalization after the state saw a stunning surge in fentanyl-related deaths. 

Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has said testing strips should be offered for free across the nation.

In 2021, the CDC and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced federal funding could be used to purchase fentanyl testing strips, and the CDC’s website provides detailed instructions on exactly how to use them.

HB 470 will likely see an amendment to address law enforcement’s concerns about unintended impacts on their investigations, Knaack said. 

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Hadley Barndollar
Hadley Barndollar

Hadley Barndollar covers climate, energy, environment, and the opioid crisis for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Previously, she was the New England regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network and was named Reporter of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Email: [email protected]