NYC Nonprofit Encourages Heroin Users To Be Amateur Chemists

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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A needle exchange program is giving out free test strips to willing addicts in New York City to test their heroin for a fatal chemical blamed for scores of deaths.

St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, a non-profit group based in the Bronx, wants users to have a better understanding of what they are putting into their bodies. The organization is also trying to spread awareness on the growing presence of fentanyl, a potent painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, reports NPR.

St. Ann’s ordered a large shipment of fentanyl test strips, similar to urine tests conducted by doctors and is giving out roughly 10 to 15 each day. Van Asher, the man behind the efforts at St. Ann’s, is now working with needle exchanges across the country who want to follow suit.

“From what I’ve heard … even when they know they’re going to be positive for fentanyl, the experience of somebody testing their drugs and seeing that it’s fentanyl has an impact,” Dr. Alexander Walley, the director of the addiction medicine fellowship program at Boston Medical Center, told NPR. “It really encourages them to use more safely. I think giving people knowledge about what they’re putting in their body is probably a good thing more than a bad thing.”

Addiction experts note most addicts are indifferent to the presence of fentanyl in their drugs despite the increased risk of death. They are more concerned with avoiding the pains of opioid withdrawal than the potential of a fatal overdose. Many are also convinced their supply is clean and are subsequently shocked at how common fentanyl is becoming.

One addict, Vincente Estepa, who recently tested his supply told Asher that fentanyl was present in all but one of his baggies of heroin. Despite his surprise, he said it’s not likely to stop him from using.

“At the end of the day an addict is an addict,” Estepa told NPR. “It’s stronger! If it makes me feel the euphoria, I’m going to go for it.”

The idea of giving test strips to addicts originated at Insite in Vancouver — the only safe injection facility in North America — which the Canadian government funds. Insite provides clean needles, voluntary substance testing to addicts and lets them use their drugs at the facility under supervision of their staff. The staff are trained in the emergency use of Narcan, the overdose reversal drug.

Officials conducting a study of drug samples brought into the facility between July 2016 and March 2017 found roughly 80 percent of the heroin and crystal meth tested contained fentanyl, as did 40 percent of the cocaine.

Roughly 60 percent of drug overdoses in British Columbia, which claimed more than 900 lives in 2016, are linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In the U.S. fentanyl is blamed as a primary driver of increased overdose deaths since 2010.

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