In recent years, fentanyl has been at the center of every conversation regarding Maryland’s overdose crisis. Initially developed for medical care to treat severe pain, this synthetic opioid has increasingly been found in drug supplies across the state, and accounted for 88% of the 2,114 opioid-related deaths that occurred in Maryland last year.
Last month, U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) introduced legislation to develop a new federal grant program to supply law enforcement agencies with portable drug-screening devices. The POWER Act has two main purposes, according to legislators: first, to reduce the backlog of drugs awaiting testing at law enforcement laboratories, and second, to protect first responders from exposure to fentanyl. While Trone’s intention to combat the opioid crisis is commendable, this bill will do little to prevent overdose fatalities, and will only serve to increase the prevalence of inaccurate information regarding the synthetic opioid fentanyl. There have been a flood of reports of law enforcement getting sick from fentanyl exposure in the line of duty, and beliefs that they were experiencing an overdose.
However, none of these reports have been verified as opioid overdoses — because they simply never were.
The American College of Medical Toxicology examined these instances and concluded that casual skin exposure to fentanyl is very unlikely to cause significant harm, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy asserts that safety protocols for fentanyl are no different than handling or coming in contact with other drugs or unknown substances. The myth that fentanyl can cause someone to overdose just by being near it can recklessly put people’s lives in danger who are legitimately experiencing an overdose if first responders and the public hesitate to assist during a life-threatening medical emergency.
It’s sensationalism like this that has perpetuated stigma about people who use drugs and has allowed Maryland’s overdose epidemic to reach such devastating rates.
While law enforcement in Maryland aren’t overdosing from encountering fentanyl on the job, thousands of residents in Maryland are dying because they do not realize that fentanyl is in the drug supply. I urge Congressman Trone to look into the ways that the federal government can support the distribution of fentanyl test strips to rapidly detect fentanyl in a drug sample. Research indicates that when people can detect fentanyl with these strips, they in turn take steps to reduce their overdose risk. At $1 a strip, these lifesaving tests pay for themselves by saving taxpayer dollars which would otherwise be spent on emergency care. Investing in community-based drug checking would put the “power” back into the hands of those most at risk of overdose — people who use drugs.