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From ‘Just Say NO’ to ‘Just Say KNOW’. What happened when we put fentanyl test strips to the test.

SACRAMENTO – Fentanyl test strips used to be illegal in California. Now state law requires them on community and state university campuses, and they’re popping up everywhere from vending machines to bars.

They are intended to help young people avoid counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills and contaminated recreational drugs. But now that fentanyl test strips have become normalized — from high school to college to bachelor parties — experts warn that test strips alone can provide a false sense of security and, in some cases, do more harm than good.

We put fentanyl test strips to the test and what we found could save someone you know.

Important lessons to share with young people in your life.

If you decide to experiment with medications and use fentanyl test strips to reduce risk, you need to understand the following:

  1. A pill in pill form has not been tested and no two pills (even from the same batch) are the same.
  2. Never trust a photo of a negative test strip.
  3. Test the medications yourself and understand that you may miss the fentanyl due to the “Chocolate Chip Cookie Effect.”
  4. Even if the test is negative, you must have multiple doses of Narcan and someone fasting nearby to administer them.
  5. Neither fentanyl test strips nor Narcan can save you from “Tranq,” a powerful sedative now found along with fentanyl in counterfeit pills and other medications.

Zach’s story

He taught himself to play the piano. He played violin in the orchestra. He was a straight-A student. He played in the school musical. He got a near perfect score on the SATs. He was on the track team and the football team. Zach was the kind of man who never sat still.

“He was very athletic. That was another reason why I didn’t think he would be interested in trying any kind of substances,” Zach’s mother, Laura Didier, explained.

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But he did.

It was the week of Christmas 2020. Zach, like many children, was struggling with the loneliness of the COVID lockdown and the first COVID-era holidays without family and friends.

Then Zach and his friend decided to try what they thought were Percocet pills they bought from a man on Snapchat. The next morning, Zach’s father found him dead at his desk, his head down as if he had fallen asleep at the computer.

“Three weeks before he died at that desk, I was sitting with him at that desk completing his applications to the (UC schools),” Laura said.

Laura now cherishes her son’s college acceptance letters, including from UCLA. Letters Zach never saw.

“Zach deserves to know where he would have ended up,” Laura said.

Fentanyl’s toll on young people

Zach died in 2020 – before fentanyl test strips were legal and before many people knew about counterfeit drugs. He wouldn’t have known to test his Percocet pill or keep Narcan nearby.

Within a year, fentanyl would be responsible for 1 in 5 deaths among California youth between the ages of 15 and 24. A CBS News analysis of the latest state data shows that the death rate remained nearly twice as high as before the pandemic through at least 2022, the most recent year with available data.

Today, the DEA reports that seven in 10 seized pills are laced with the cheap, powerful synthetic opioid hidden in recreational drugs and counterfeit prescriptions ranging from cocaine to painkillers to ADHD medications.

In response to the crisis, California lawmakers decriminalized fentanyl test strips, which were considered a drug paraphilia until 2022. State law now requires fentanyl test strips on California community campuses and state universities.

The message changes from “just say no” to “just say ‘know'” and focuses on education and harm reduction rather than abstinence.

But now that fentanyl test strips have become normalized — from high school to college to bachelor parties — experts warn that test strips alone can provide a false sense of security and, in some cases, do more harm than good.

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Putting test strips to the test

Placer County Sheriff’s Detective Patrick Craven was the lead detective on Zach Didier’s case.

“We no longer encounter real pills. We only encounter counterfeit pills,” Craven explains.

Using evidence for destruction and a variety of test strips purchased on Amazon, Det. Craven helped us show the concern.

With Narcan nearby and a dedicated safety officer nearby to manage it, we started crushing what a dealer was selling as Percocet M-30s.

First, we tested each pill with a law enforcement mass spectrometer, which confirmed that the pills were in fact adulterated with fentanyl. Then we used the test strips.

Test strips are generally quite accurate (assuming they are purchased from a reputable source). However, the main concern is user error and the ‘chocolate chip cookie effect’.

User error

Unlike COVID tests, fentanyl strips have one line positive and two lines negative. The instructions vary from test to test.

Each test requires you to crush and dilute the medications with a specific amount of solution, which varies from test to test.

Some strips require you to test the entire pill, others do not. That is a concern.

“You’re not going to test the whole thing because you can’t use it,” Det. Craven Notes.

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Effect

When we split one pill, according to the test’s instructions, and ran each half through the spectrometer, one half contained no fentanyl, and the other half did.

It is known as the chocolate chip cookie analogy. For prescriptions prepared in a laboratory, the medication is evenly distributed. If you take half a pill, you also get half the medicine.

But street drugs are more like homemade cookies. Some may have a lot of chips, others may have a few, and if you only test a piece of the cookie, you can test the piece without the chips – or without the fentanyl, in the case of a pill.

And that can have deadly consequences

“Every pill is different.”

In a real-life example, Zach and his best friend were given pills by the same man. His friend survived, but Zach did not.

“Testing one pill doesn’t guarantee that the next one won’t be full of fentanyl,” Laura Didier said, emphasizing that no two pills are the same.

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Laura has learned a lot since Zach died and now shares her knowledge with children in schools, with lawmakers at the State Capitol, and with parents through her nonprofit work at SongforCharlie.org, where they provide resources like “the new drug talk” for parents to have with their children.

“You’re safer than Zach,” Laura explains. ‘He didn’t know everything you know now. And you can be part of the solution and share his story.”

One of the life-saving lessons she would like to give you: “The market is flooded with counterfeits. Don’t take pills that don’t come from a pharmacy. We didn’t have those messages yet in 2020.”

Also, don’t trust dealers who claim to have tested pills. The man who sold Zach his fatal pill on Snapchat was later convicted of manslaughter.

During his investigation, Detective Craven found a Snapchat photo of a negative test strip on the dealer’s account. The dealer sent it to someone else in an apparent attempt to convince other buyers that his drugs were safe after Zach died.

“A pill in pill form has not been tested,” Laura explained. “The entire pill needs to be crushed (and) your dilution ratio needs to be right.”

If you test a pill yourself, she emphasizes that you still need Narcan nearby with someone who is sober to administer it. Narcan could not have saved Zach because he took his pill alone in his room.

“It is very important that young people understand that they will not be able to take care of themselves,” Laura said.

His college acceptance letters to his dream schools were followed by condolence letters from the colleges.

“Zach would say, ‘I don’t know exactly what I want to do… but I know I want to help people,’” Laura said.

She hopes he will do that by sharing his story.

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