(NewsNation) —There is a new lead cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45. It isn’t suicide, it isn’t car accidents and it isn’t COVID-19.
It’s drug overdoses, specifically the dangerous drug fentanyl.
The synthetic opioid was responsible for 500,000 deaths in the past two decades. It is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Just .25 milligrams, roughly a couple grains of salt, can lead to respiratory failure, causing death.
Fentanyl produces effects such as relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction and respiratory depression, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Drug users often unknowingly purchase drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and pills including OxyContin, Xanax and Adderall, on the illegal market unaware they’re laced with fentanyl.
Many states have legalized fentanyl test strips, which in the past have been considered illegal drug paraphernalia, in an effort to slow the number of overdose deaths.
Amanda Faith knows the pain a fentanyl overdose can cause a family. Her 13-year-old son, Luka, bought what he thought was a Percocet online to relieve the pain of a toothache. The pill contained no Percocet whatsoever. It was pure fentanyl. and Luka died after taking the pill.
She believes the fentanyl test kits are a bad idea as they can provide a false sense of safety around fentanyl use. She said the conversation about fentanyl itself is more impactful in saving lives.
“You shouldn’t be on the fence about these kits; these kits are inherently dangerous,” she said. “It’s not because they contribute to drug use, in any way. Just having the conversation about test strips spreads awareness of fentanyl poisoning, so that’s a good start. But fentanyl test strips create a false sense of security.”
Luka’s case was investigated as a homicide. A man has been charged with murdering Luka and awaits trial in jail.
At the Good Hop bar in Oakland, California, fentanyl test strips can be found in the bathroom. Owner Melissa Myers said it’s a “no-brainer” to keep the strips around if they can help save lives.
Efforts like Myers’ are growing around the country, with 19 states allowing for free distribution of test strips.
Allison Heller, the founder of overdose prevention group Fentcheck, also argues having these strips around only makes people safer.
“Allowing these to be in bar bathrooms, in tattoo parlors, on college campuses, allows it to be like a condom. If you have this on you, it’s not encouraging you to make a decision,” Heller said. “It just makes you safer.”
Other states still have deemed the test strips illegal. Missouri and Kansas both slapped a ban on the test strips.
The Kansas City Star called out lawmakers in both states in an editorial for not passing legislation to legalize the test strips. They argued it was not a partisan issue and “no one should oppose this.”
Still, there are lawmakers in the U.S. who oppose legalizing test strips, clinging to the idea it promotes drug use.
Dr. Joey Hensley, a Republican state senator and physician in Tennessee, is one of those lawmakers.
“I just don’t think it’s a good policy to make it easier for people addicted to drugs to use drugs,” Hensley said.
Other physicians argue the opposite. In an op-ed for The Palm Beach Post, Dr. Brent Schillinger, the chair of a local opioid response initiative group, derided Florida lawmakers for failing to pass legislation to legalize test strips.
“The greater the availability of fentanyl test strips, the more deaths we can prevent,” Schillinger wrote in the op-ed. “This tool might save the life of a teen who is experimenting for the first time, a concert-goer looking for a trip, or a person suffering from addiction who chooses to use a preferred substance obtained from a new source.”
President Joe Biden last month unveiled his administration’s strategy for countering drug overdoses, which totaled 107,000 in 2021, up from 93,000 in 2020.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 150 people die every day in the U.S. from opioids, including fentanyl.
The strategy, led by White House drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta, focuses on harm reduction, which promotes the use of test strips and distribution of the drug noloxone, which can save lives during an overdose.
Reuters contributed to this story.