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NH Senate votes to legalize fentanyl, xylazine test strips

Fentanyl test strips allow people to check their drugs for the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid, which has caused a surge in overdose deaths.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
Fentanyl test strips allow people to check their drugs for the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid, which has caused a surge in overdose deaths.

State andfederal health officials say fentanyl test strips can reduce overdoses and other harms from drug use, at a time when overdose deaths have been rising in New Hampshire. But in New Hampshire, those materials are considered illegal drug paraphernalia — limiting who can distribute them.

A bill that recently cleared the New Hampshire Senate could change that. It would legalize materials that test for fentanyl or xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that’s increasingly entered the New England drug supply in recent years.

Advocates said the measure could expand access to things like fentanyl test strips, which allow people to check if their drugs contain the dangerous synthetic opioid.

“People need to be able to use harm reduction tools without fear of reprisal, without fear of being prosecuted for it,” said Democratic Rep. Jodi Newell of Keene, the bill’s main sponsor. She said the change “will save lives.”

Read more: How an animal tranquilizer is adding new risks to street drugs in New Hampshire

Lauren McGinley, the executive director of the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition, said that could broaden access to fentanyl and xylazine test strips. Organizations like hers that run syringe exchanges have special legal protections, allowing them to distribute such items, but other institutions and community groups don’t.

“We don't have connections to every single person in the state of New Hampshire that uses drugs,” she said. “And so there are other partners out there that may come in contact with folks. And this can help to keep you know, more people safe.”

The bill’s passage comes as some harm reduction organizations in New Hampshire have started to stock xylazine test strips, whichjust came on the market this year. Also called “tranq,” xylazine has increasingly been cut into heroin or fentanyl in the Northeast in recent years. Health experts warn it causes severe skin wounds and heavy sedation that can compound the risk of overdose.

Though advocates called the bill a positive step, it’s not as broad as some had hoped. Newell’s original bill, which passed the House in March, would have removed all drug-checking equipment from the definition of prohibited paraphernalia. An amendment in the Senate narrowed that to apply only to materials that test for fentanyl and xylazine, and not other substances.

McGinley said the more limited version could make it harder for public health workers to respond to rapid changes in the drug supply, including new contaminants.

“It just evolves every day,” she said. “Things that we are very concerned about now, we weren't concerned about two or three years ago.”

Because it was amended in the Senate, the bill will head to a conference committee before going to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he plans to sign it.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.
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