To Prevent Fentanyl Overdoses, Some Cities Try High-Tech Drug Testing : Shots - Health News Public health officials are adopting a law-enforcement tool, the mass spectrometer, to instantly identify potentially deadly levels of opioids in local drug supplies.

Built For Counterterrorism, This High-Tech Machine Is Now Helping Fight Fentanyl

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A machine that's designed to help detect residue from chemical weapons has a new use in Boston where it can help prevent drug overdoses. The main culprit here is the powerful opioid fentanyl. Martha Bebinger of member station WBUR begins our story next to that buzzing machine and a tiny plastic baggie that appears empty.


SARAH MACKIN: This is something that was sold as heroin.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Sarah Mackin runs a Q-tip-type swab around the inside of this baggie, swipes whatever granules it found onto a test strip and slides the strip into this machine.

MACKIN: I'm going to go to the setting called drug hunter. I'm going to run it. It takes about 30 seconds.

BEBINGER: Meet the MX908. This mass spectrometer is about the size of a boxed take-home pie. It can identify 70 specific types of fentanyl, as well as meth and cocaine, based on virtually invisible traces, like what's left on the tip of a needle or wiped onto a cotton ball. Mackin, with the Boston Public Health Commission, watches red and yellow warning symbols flash across the machine's screen.

MACKIN: Oh, yeah. So there's multiple kinds of opioid analgesics and multiple kinds of synthetic fentanyls in this sample that was sold as heroin. It's kind of an example of what the drug landscape looks like here.

BEBINGER: Drugs for sale in the U.S. today cross borders and are cut and remixed many times. Drug users rarely know for sure what they are buying. Take the experience of a woman named Bri. We're only using Bri's first name because she uses illegal drugs. She brought in residue from three separate bags to have it tested by the machine on a downtown Boston street. One hit sent Bri into an overdose.

BRI: So that's why I wanted it tested. I wanted to know if - I thought there was carfentanil in it.

BEBINGER: Carfentanil, sometimes called the elephant tranquilizer, shows up sporadically in Boston. In Bri's case, one sample had no trace of any drugs, one had a medically approved form of fentanyl, and the third showed traces of something Bri learns is about as dangerous as carfentanil.

BRI: Now, I'm going to be honest. If I was sick and I had one bag of dope on me and you told me there's carfentanil in there, I'm not going to lie and say I wouldn't use it, but I would know to not put the entire thing in.

BEBINGER: Bri says she knows that would still be very risky. She tries to use with a buddy and makes sure she carries the overdose antidote naloxone. Testing the drug supply is called drug checking. Research shows it saves lives by reducing the risk of overdose. The testing also helps warn drug users and the Boston Public Health Commission.

BRI: So now they can tell people, hey, just to let you know, there's some really strong killer stuff that's coming out of, let's say, Copley.

BEBINGER: That kind of public warning could go either way. Some drug users say they might rush off to Copley Square to buy some. But Traci Green, an epidemiologist who studies drug checking at Rhode Island Hospital, says when drug users can test what they buy, they seek out dealers with the safest supply.

TRACI GREEN: So this improvement of consumer knowledge and confidence in what they're getting and how they might be able to use it can help us improve the safety of the larger supply.

BEBINGER: Only one other city - Chicago - is assessing the public health benefits of this device more typically used to detect chemical and biological weapons. But there are two reasons it may not be widely adopted for drug checking. One is the price tag - $65,000. The second - it may be illegal. Northeastern University law professor Leo Beletsky explains.

LEO BELETSKY: Drug checking is a legal gray area. There are provisions in Massachusetts law and the laws of pretty much every other state that might be interpreted to consider drug checking devices as drug paraphernalia.

BEBINGER: So use of the MX908 is proceeding cautiously in Boston. Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would make the MX908 and other drug checking tools legal. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

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