ATLANTA — A bill is waiting for Governor Brian Kemp's signature to increase access to drug testing strips, something advocates said could save lives with the number of people dying from a fentanyl-related overdose surging in Georgia since the start of the pandemic.
The plan to increase access comes from the White House to address the epidemic, and Kemp has until May 14th to sign or veto the bill.
"Fentanyl strips and Narcan are the one-two punch to save lives in Georgia," Jeff Breedlove, a recovering addict who works with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said. "If you love somebody out there, and you think they're in active addiction, you want them to have as many fentanyl strips in their possession as they possibly can."
While Narcan is available in many pharmacies in Georgia, that's not the case for drug testing strips. The push for increased access to fast-acting strips follows a spike in overdose deaths in Georgia since the pandemic.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the state increased more than 106% between May 2020 and April 2021 compared to the same time the previous year.
State officials warn that fentanyl-laced drugs can't be detected by sight or smell, and even a small amount can lead to an overdose.
Yet, fentanyl test strips can detect the presence of the synthetic opioid, potentially deterring someone from using it before it's too late.
"For me, it really is about how can we prevent deaths," State Senator Jen Jordan said. "How can we bring that number down?"
While the test strips can be found online, Jordan explained that the drug testing technology could still technically be considered drug paraphernalia under Georgia law, a legal gray area she's working to change.
"It became clear to me we had to do something in Georgia," Jordan said. "If nothing else just to try to protect kids who you know may be experimenting with drugs and have no clue what they're dealing with."
Jordan hopes revising state law could make fentanyl test strips as easy to have as Narcan. While critics argue the move would enable users, physicians like Dr. Sara Polley, Medical Director for National Youth Continuum for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, said such harm-reduction tools are intended to save lives and buy time to get people into treatment.
"This is a really deadly epidemic that we're facing right now, and we want to be able to help people to make healthier choices for their life," Polley, who recently joined the 2023 RX Summit in Atlanta to discuss prevention, treatment and recovery strategies, said. "But we need to keep them alive in order to engage them in treatment, and so this is a step to be able to do that while we work towards decreasing people's use of opioids and other illicit substances."
Meanwhile, Jordan's measure falls under HB 1175, known as the Georgia Raw Dairy Act. The provision would make "any testing equipment used to determine whether a controlled substance has been adulterated and contains a synthetic opioid" no longer a drug-related object.
"We're losing too many people," Jordan said. "We're losing too many people in this state to overdoses that are absolutely and directly connected to fentanyl."
Symptoms of an opioid overdose include:
- Unconsciousness, or inability to wake up
- Limp body
- Falling asleep, extreme drowsiness
- Slow, shallow, irregular or no breathing
- Pale, blue, cold and/or clammy skin
- Choking, snoring or gurgling sounds
- Slow or no heartbeat
If you suspect a drug overdose, call 911 immediately, provide the location of the overdose and stay with the individual until help arrives. Georgia has a medical amnesty law that protects individuals who may be experiencing an overdose and callers seeking medical attention for drug overdoses. Naloxone reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and can be obtained from pharmacies in Georgia without a prescription under a standing order from the Commissioner. Drug prevention and recovery are possible with the appropriate support. For access to services and immediate crisis help, the Georgia Crisis & Access Line 1-800-715-4225 is available 24/7.