Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the state pours resources into curbing the use of opioids, the City of Missoula could make it easier for users to test their product for purity in an effort to reduce poisoning from other chemicals cut into the product.

Council members on Wednesday placed their support behind a resolution calling for such “drug checking tools.” But portions of the effort may still depend upon the Legislature, which is considering a bill to remove fentanyl test strips from its list of drug paraphernalia.

“These tools are very quick and fairly effective tools to be able to identify the presence of a contaminant,” said Michael Layeux, president of the Missoula Chapter for Sensible Drug Policy. “We have a proven behavioral track record showing how people change their use of these compounds.”

Under the resolution, the city would direct around $5,000 a year from its share of the Johnson & Johnson opioid settlement to ensure the test strips are available. A number of details must be clarified but, as presented, the City-County Health Department would likely administer the program.

Health Director D'Shane Barnett said his department supports the proposal.

“Across the country, there are many health departments already doing this. We're more than happy to take this on,” Barnett said. “We would incorporate it into our current health promotion programming. We can also look at how to make it more publicly available. We'd look at what the best practices are.”

According to the resolution, the Montana State Crime Lab in 2021 saw fatal overdoses linked to fentanyl increase more than 1,000% over 2017. The resolution also notes that the Blackfeet Tribe declared a state of emergency after experiencing 17 drug overdoes, including four fatal.

Council member Daniel Carlino, who sponsored the resolution, said a number of federal agencies have encouraged the use of opioid settlement funds to provide rapid fentanyl test strips as a tool to reduce overdose deaths.

“This is a lower cost than responding to overdoses in our community,” he said. “Police and fire responses can be very expensive. It's much less expensive to prevent those overdoses by having far-reaching distribution of fentanyl testing strips and other drug-checking tools.”

Carlino last year sponsored a measure that would decriminalize the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. While that proposal never cleared its committee, the latest measure to make testing strips free and accessible so far has broad support.

Carlino said the city's share of the Johnson & Johnson opioid settlement funds haven't been earmarked for any particular purpose or program just yet. The initial $5,000 taken from the settlement would establish the provision of fentanyl test strips as a pilot program.

“It can be difficult to easily access these testing strips,” he said. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to use them, and easy as possible to get them for free.”

While some at the state level contend that providing test strips could signal tolerance and support for opioid use, Barnett said he disagrees.

“That's not in the literature I've been able to find,” he said. “What is there is that as these testing supplies become more accessible, people reduce their usage of opioids or adopt safer usage patterns. When we're thinking about public health, it's exactly the impact we want to see.”

The resolution presents a number of arguments, suggesting that drug users will make an informed decision to use or not use a particular chemical if they know what's in it. It also suggests that drug-testing tools currently carry a sigma, making users less likely to use them.

If approved, the resolution would make the testing strips free to drug users, or family and friends of those who use.

“Prevention is always something I'm willing to support,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “It's the humane and financially responsible thing o do. This is a low-cost program we can put into motion.”