Advocates want to change a NH law that criminalizes drug checking equipment
New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a pair of bills that would remove drug-checking equipment from the definition of illegal drug paraphernalia.
Advocates say the change could increase access to fentanyl test strips and other tools that allow people who use drugs to test for unwanted and potentially dangerous substances.
“It's life saving, I mean, for people to have access to equipment that can tell them what's in these pills, what's in these powders, what's in these drugs,” said Rep. David Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat sponsoring one of the bills.
Experts say New England’s drug supply is increasingly unpredictable. Fentanyl — the powerful synthetic opioid that has all but replaced heroin in New Hampshire — is finding its way into stimulants like cocaine and being pressed into fake pills.
Various other adulterants are adding to the risks. Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer found in fentanyl in New Hampshire and other parts of the country, is causing heavy sedation and severe skin wounds.
Federal health officials have called test stripsa key tool for reducing fatal overdoses from fentanyl. But New Hampshire law still technically classifies test strips and other drug-checking materials as banned paraphernalia, making their distribution a misdemeanor.
While organizations that run syringe-exchange programs are exempt, allowing their members to hand out test strips, the law prevents them from being more widely available, said Lauren McGinley, the executive director of the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition.
She said drug checking empowers people to make more informed decisions, helping to prevent overdoses and other health risks.
“A person has the right to know what is in their drug supply, so that they can make decisions about how they use drugs and if they use drugs, and what's the healthiest choice in the way that they consume those drugs,” she said.
One of the bills under consideration would simply remove drug-testing equipment from the definition of illegal paraphernalia. The other, more comprehensive bill contains explicit legal protections for drug checking, including for people in possession of small samples for the purpose of testing and analyzing them.
Supporters hope the second bill will pave the way for more robust drug-checking programs. They point to Massachusetts, where a state-funded network of community drug-checking sites allows people to bring in unknown substances for testing. Public health researchers have used that data to track the spread of xylazine and other substances, and issue warnings about their effects.
“The reason we originally knew that xylazine was in our drug supply was from drug-checking programs in Massachusetts,” said Kerry Nolte, a nurse practitioner and professor of nursing at the University of New Hampshire.
She said that kind of information can help medical providers understand what they’re dealing with when people show up with unfamiliar symptoms, like the more severe wounds they have been seeing because of xylazine. It also helps people who use drugs take steps to be safer.
New Hampshire State Police Capt. Bill Bright told lawmakers Thursday that he does not object to the narrower bill decriminalizing testing equipment. But he expressed concerns that the more comprehensive one could make it harder to investigate some drug cases.
“I believe that our state forensic lab could offer some statistics to, you know, what is included in these drugs already,” he said, adding that police also have intelligence about drug trends. When asked if that information is publicly available, he said some of it is “law enforcement sensitive.”
The New Hampshire Department of Safety has told NHPR that its crime lab is finding xylazine in about 15% of fentanyl samples. But it does not appear to have released that data to the public. Earlier this month, the department alerted EMS providers about xylazine, but neither it nor the state health department have issued any public warnings.
McGinley said the data coming from the state right now is too delayed to be useful, as the drug supply can shift rapidly. With real-time information about which substances are circulating, she said harm reduction workers could talk to people about ways to adapt and be safer.
“There’s a lot you can do, even if somebody is going to use, that will prevent them from having a fatal overdose,” she said.
Nolte said community drug checking programs are also better positioned to detect emerging substances, because they’re informed by the experiences of people who use drugs.
“They're the ones that volunteer that information,” she said. “They're concerned for their community. So they're often bringing samples that do strange things to people. You know, ‘I had five buddies overdose, can you test this and figure out what's in it?’”