Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pennsylvania lawmakers vote to legalize fentanyl testing strips, while the fight for syringe exchanges continues

As the state’s drug supply has become increasingly contaminated with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, testing strips can help drug users avoid overdose.

Tasha Trask-Bobbitt puts together fentanyl testing strip packets for the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Tasha Trask-Bobbitt puts together fentanyl testing strip packets for the Chicago Department of Public Health.Read moreArmando L. Sanchez / MCT

Pennsylvania is poised to legalize drug testing tools like strips that can detect in illicit drugs the presence of fentanyl, an especially deadly synthetic opioid. But lawmakers stopped short of approving this session a bill that would have allowed communities outside of major cities to help people in addiction swap out used syringes for sterile ones.

The Pennsylvania Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill decriminalizing drug testing tools that can help drug users identify toxic or harmful substances in drugs, which had previously cleared the House. Advocates praised the move as a crucial way to combat overdoses, especially in rural communities with limited access to resources to reduce the harmful consequences of drug addiction.

The legislation now heads to the desk of Gov. Tom Wolf, whose administration supports the drug testing bill, a spokesperson said in an email. However, the governor is disappointed that a separate bill that would have legalized syringe exchange services in the state did not make it out of the House Judiciary Committee, press secretary Elizabeth Rementer said.

Pennsylvania is one of eight states with only local provisions for needle exchanges, which can help limit the spread of bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis. (An additional 11 ban them outright.) Currently, a handful of exchanges operate with the approval of local officials in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other larger municipalities.

The bill’s sponsors said they hope to return to the issue in the next legislative session.

The legislation comes amid record overdoses around the country and in Pennsylvania; 5,343 people died of overdoses in the state in 2021, the second-highest death toll on record. Philadelphia reported 1,276 fatal overdoses in the same year, the highest the city has ever seen. Overdose death rates decreased slightly in Philadelphia’s four surrounding counties: Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware.

» READ MORE: Decades into the opioid epidemic, Black Philadelphians are dying of overdoses at the same rates as white residents, and the death toll is breaking records.

Legalizing fentanyl testing strips

The drug testing bill removes fentanyl testing strips from a list of “drug paraphernalia” prohibited for distribution under the state criminal code. Like syringe exchanges, fentanyl testing strips have been decriminalized in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh through municipal directives.

The legislation also permits the possession of other drug testing items, as long as they are used to test for toxic substances in amounts that can cause physical harm or death. That’s to ensure that if other contaminants besides fentanyl make their way into the drug supply, drug users will not have to worry that testing for them could get them arrested, said Carla Sofronski, the cofounder of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network.

As the state’s drug supply has become increasingly contaminated with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, testing strips can help drug users learn whether fentanyl is present in their drugs and avoid overdoses.

“People in rural areas feel forgotten because they don’t have the same access that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have,” Sofronski said. “To be able to provide them with tools for safer use and resources is huge.”

Both the drug testing bill and the syringe exchange bill’s sponsors include legislators from both parties who have lost relatives to opioid overdoses. Rep. Jim Struzzi (R., Indiana) has been working in the legislature for three years to legalize drug testing materials. His brother died of an overdose in 2014.

“Fentanyl is so prevalent that people who are using [drugs] even recreationally at parties are coming across it,” he said. “I’m not condoning drug use. But you shouldn’t die from it. You should have a second chance.”

The sponsor of the syringe exchange bill, Rep. Sarah Innamorato (D., Allegheny), lost her father to complications of opioid addiction in 2009.

She and Struzzi said they’re hopeful that the success of the drug testing bill will lead to its passage in the next session.

At a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year on the bill, first responders, outreach workers, and other advocates testified about how fentanyl testing strips could help their clients avoid overdose — and also suggested syringe exchanges could do the same.

“Both red and blue states have legalized statewide syringe service programs,” Innamorato said. “This is something we can do to catch up.”

She noted that lack of access to sterile needles is creating additional health issues, such as a rise in hepatitis C in rural Pennsylvania.