SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be a hundred times more powerful than morphine. Dealers mix it with drugs like cocaine and heroin to boost its strength, and that has led to a sharp increase in overdose deaths. Users typically don't know whether their drugs are laced with fentanyl until it's too late. That's why some public health experts want users to test their drugs with a $1 strip.
Traci Green of Brown University's School of Medicine is one of the lead investigators of a study about drug testing technologies. She joins us now from Providence, R.I. Thanks so much for being with us.
TRACI GREEN: You're very welcome. Thanks.
SIMON: How do these $1 test strips work?
GREEN: They function much like a pregnancy test, where you expose some small amount of drug, perhaps even something left over in a bag, with a little bit of water, and you find out pretty quickly whether that drug had fentanyl in it or not.
SIMON: And the outcome makes a difference to the people who test it?
GREEN: It does. Knowing that fentanyl is in the drug that someone's about to use can help them decide when, where, how and even if they use that drug. So this is a way that people can start to prepare for that possible overdose that might happen.
SIMON: I'm sure you anticipate questions like this, are you just making it easier for people to use drugs which are harmful enough without fentanyl?
GREEN: There is always concern that use begets use. The challenge is that opioid addiction is an overwhelming disease and a condition that is totally treatable but can be really hard to find that connection to care. This doesn't perpetuate use. It actually brings people in and closer, and that's what we've seen with syringe exchange, condom distribution and other means of connecting with people who are at high risk.
SIMON: I'm afraid I have to ask, because I don't have to tell you, there are so many ideas that have been proposed in recent years to try and affect the opioid epidemic. And, well, let's put it this way. Far as I know, so many of them fall short. Can you think of an instance where someone who used a test strip is now in the process of getting off opioids successfully?
GREEN: We don't have a lot of time with these trips just yet in the field, but we have enormous promise and a lot of parallels, for instance, with HIV testing and counseling - opportunities where people who are at high risk of having a disease, and when they learn even the process of going through the testing experience, whether that's a positive or a negative result, talking with a counselor, talking with someone in a trusted environment has resulted in changes in risk behavior, and it may introduce opportunities for starting drug treatments.
I think some of the research that we've done has really shown that people see it as something that should be offered as part of a comprehensive array of services. And the way we convey it can allow us to bring people in further into treatment and further into the kind of services that can help change the tide in this epidemic.
SIMON: Traci Green of Brown University School of Medicine, thanks so much for being with us.
GREEN: You're very welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.