As more drug users die alone, medical examiner says fentanyl test strips could save lives

Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 6:48 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - The powerful, synthetic opioid fentanyl continues to kill our loved ones and neighbors here in northeast Ohio.

And sadly, many people are dying alone.

19 Investigates spoke one-on-one with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner, who is getting behind a new way to save lives.

We also got a look at how their drug lab works.

Law enforcement agencies continue to sieze massive amounts of fentanyl, which is being sold illegally.

We saw kilos of fentanyl, which had been brought in as evidence by police.

There were thousands of pills in the bags, enough to kill countless people.

Inside their drug lab, scientists also worked on a huge marijuana seizure.

They analyze and identify different types of drugs.

Many of them are sending people to their morgue downstairs.

“Fentanyl is still the major driver of drug overdose deaths in our county,” said Dr. Thomas Gilson, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner.

He showed us their latest numbers from 2022.

The data shows 656 people died from drug overdoses in Cuyahoga County in last year. 490 of them died from fentanyl-- nearly 75 percent.

That is the same number of people who died from fentanyl last year.

“A lot of the people who overdose are using drugs by themselves and they can’t give themselves naloxone, the antidote, because they’re dying,” Dr. Gilson said.

So if Narcan, the antidote, won’t save their lives, you may be wondering what will.

Fentanyl test strips could be the answer, detecting fentanyl in just minutes.

They were decriminalized in a state bill that passed this month.

Fentanyl is often laced in other drugs like cocaine and many drug users have no idea.

“I don’t think any of us want to tell people, you know, use drugs. That’s not what I’m saying. But when you talk about harm reduction, fentanyl test strips really are the next thing we should be thinking about,” Dr. Gilson said.

They could use these strips to test their own drugs before using them.

Dr. Gilson also hopes it would encourage people to not use drugs alone and erase the stigma of addiction.

“It accepts that you may use drugs today and again tomorrow, but if we follow people who are addicted to opiates out far enough, most of them stop using drugs. If we can get them to that finish line, as opposed to the finish line in the medical examiner’s office-- where they’ve died,” he said.

Interventions like fentanyl test strips could take months to show any effect in saving lives.

But advocates say they’re a much-needed option.

Fentanyl test strips will officially be legal in Ohio in April, 90 days after the bill was signed.

Decriminalization of the test strips means they will no longer be classified as illegal drug paraphernalia.

In the meantime, advocates say most cases are not prosecuted.

You can get fentanyl test strips for free in several places.

Free fentanyl tests strips

-The ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County has a list of places you can get them here.

-The SOAR Initiative will send them to you for free.

24-hour addiction hotline

-Cuyahoga County Addiction/Mental Health Crisis Hotline: 216-623-6888 or 988.

-SAMHSA National Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).