When Ian Eisenberg’s friend died due to an overdose of fentanyl last year, the problem of street drugs laced with this potent synthetic opioid became personal. “People taking drugs that they have no idea even are cut with fentanyl is just a symptom of a larger problem I don’t know how to solve,” says Eisenberg, who recently began giving away fentanyl test strips people can take anonymously at Uncle Ike’s Bottle Shop and in the vestibule between the entrance to the Capitol Hill Pot Shop and Angel’s Shoe Repair (unlicensed premises.) “My goal is to provide at least a little harm reduction.”

As fentanyl-related overdoses reach new records in King County, finding ways to reduce this often lethal mistake has become increasingly urgent. King County Public Health reported 172 overdoses in 2020, almost tripling the total reported in King County in 2018. And the number of fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 increased by more than 45%.

In 2019, the Washington legislature set aside $101,000 for Washington Syringe Service Programs to distribute more fentanyl test strips. Although the program was highly utilized, funding was exhausted in 2020.

What is fentanyl and why is it on the rise?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a pain reliever similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent. Due to its cheap cost to manufacture and strong effects, a number of fentanyl-laced drugs, including counterfeit pharmaceutical pills, are seeing a spike in the illegal drug market and are killing many unsuspecting users. Counterfeit pills are being made to look exactly like prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Xanax. Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States.

The illegally used fentanyl most often associated with recent overdoses is manufactured in labs. This synthetic fentanyl is sold illegally, often online, as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers and nasal sprays or made into pills that look like other prescription medications. “People are taking this powerful drug and don’t even know it,” Eisenberg says. “Two years ago, the fear was fentanyl being in heroin. But now it’s showing up in every drug out there on the street.”

According to King County Public Health, you can’t detect fentanyl by smell or taste, or by looking at pills. Part of what makes this trend of cutting drugs with fentanyl so dangerous is that the amount can vary between pills, even within the same batch. While a single pill cut with fentanyl might get a person high without killing them, another pill could be fatal.

How do fentanyl test strips work?

A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins and Brown University reported that test strips detect the fentanyl with a high degree of accuracy, and most people who use street drugs were interested in using test strips to prevent overdoses.

Test strips are a simple yet effective way for people to test the drugs they choose to take and prevent the worst from happening. You dilute the drug with water and put a few drops onto the strip. “It’s sort of like using a pregnancy test,” says Eisenberg. “It’s that easy.” One red line on top is a positive result for the presence of fentanyl or one of its analogs. Two red lines is a negative result. No red lines (or one red line on the bottom) means the test is invalid. Usually this happens because the liquid did not travel far enough up the testing strip.

If used correctly, fentanyl test strips can detect fentanyl and most of its known analogs. However, the manufacturer notes they cannot detect all of them. A negative result, therefore, does not guarantee a drug sample is free from all synthetic opioids.

Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop has been setting high standards since 2014, when we opened our Central District flagship store. Now with five locations, Uncle Ike’s has become the Seattle’s favorite pot shop, offering a fast, affordable and safe shopping experience.