PORTLAND, Oregon — Fentanyl test strips are designed to detect the cheap, powerful synthetic opioid that's increasingly become a fatal problem. It was recently linked to the deaths of two Portland high school students and is especially dangerous because people often don't know they're taking it — counterfeit pills can contain deadly amounts of fentanyl.
At Star Bar on Southeast Morrison Street, owner Josh Davis began making the strips available for free to customers about a month ago. So far he’s had about 160 takers.
“It's harm reduction, that's it. It's not condoning [drug use],” said Davis. “I don't feel like it should be controversial because fentanyl is an issue; it's the number one cause of death for people 18 to 45 in this country right now.”
Davis’ effort is part of a bigger goal to making fentanyl test strips more accessible.
“We just don't think it should take a coroner to tell you there was fentanyl in the pill you took,” said Dean Shold, co-founder of FentCheck, the nonprofit providing Star Bar with its test strips.
Based in Oakland, FentCheck is a big reason why you'll find the strips all over the Bay Area. They're also working with businesses in Philadelphia, New York and now Portland.
“This is a call to action for Portland," said FentCheck co-founder Alison Heller. “If you are a venue, we want to work with you. No venue is going to come off as a ‘druggy bar,’ if it's all of us together.”
FentCheck gets their test strips from Canadian manufacturer BTNX Inc. They cost about a dollar to make. To cover that cost, Heller said they ask partnering businesses to make monthly donations to the nonprofit.
“Every single one of our volunteers has a friend or roommate or co-worker or colleague or struggled [with addiction] themselves,” said Heller. "This was not a problem 10 years ago.”
Now it's a deadly epidemic, killing adults and kids. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid often found in pill-form. It's up to one hundred times more powerful than morphine. Narcotics experts say counterfeit fentanyl pills are mass-produced on the black market and you never know what you're going to get.
“Know that first line could kill you,” said Shold.
Shold and Heller liken what they're doing to putting out bowls of condoms in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic, or providing public access to clean hypodermic needles and sharps boxes. And of course, there's Narcan. To them, providing Fentanyl test strips is just the latest way to help mitigate a public health crisis.
Davis hopes that by providing them to his customers, it will make a difference. It’s the same reason he had already been keeping Narcan at Star Bar.
“[Test strips] hopefully gets us to the point where we don't necessarily have to use the Narcan," said Davis, "but both are there to save lives.”