What Price

I just came from a meeting of the Native American Unsheltered/Opioid Crisis Response group. We discussed the need for more messages encouraging people not to use drugs, rather than focusing on using drugs safely. The harm reduction approach (helping people use drugs safely to reduce the negative consequences of drug use – like death – until a drug user is ready to quit drugs altogether) has its place, but by itself it limits the opportunities someone has to free themselves from addiction. When someone decides they want to stop using drugs entirely, they need a pathway towards that goal. As with any other vice, from overeating to losing one’s temper in uncontrollable rages, reducing the problem is good, but overcoming it is better.
At the same meeting, someone mentioned the test strips that allow a drug user to check the drugs they
are going to use to see if they contain fentanyl. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and
has caused untold overdose deaths over the last couple of years. I looked up the test strips online to get
some background information. I was shocked by the WebMD.com article on the strips, as it drove home
the point the Native American group had discussed at their meeting.
WebMD.com explained that a drug user needed to dissolve some of the drugs in water to administer the
test. It then gave instructions on how to dry out the drugs so that the individual could use any drugs that
didn’t have fentanyl – “safe” drugs, in other words. I assume whoever wrote the instructions thought
something like this:
If a drug user is worried that testing for fentanyl will waste some of their drugs, they might not do the
test. Better to reassure them that they can still get high safely than to not do the test.
While I understand the thought process, it seems strange that a website devoted to people’s health will
apparently promote the use of illegal drugs. We seem to be getting dangerously close to overlooking the
lesser evils simply because they are lesser, while ignoring that they are still evil. Apparently fentanyl is so
dangerous that all other street drugs are considered safe by comparison. We’ve hit the point where
cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines aren’t that bad after all, simply because they aren’t as
dangerous as fentanyl. I know the friends and family of many drug users who would disagree.
This is not meant to condemn anyone who uses drugs, nor to shame WebMD.com. As I said, this came
up in a discussion of social service agencies doing outreach to drug users using exactly the same mindset
as the website. I hope harm reduction does keep people alive long enough for them to get away from
their addictions. Trying to keep people safe from fentanyl isn’t a problem, but the tradeoffs we are
willing to make in the process might be.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.