SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Accidental opioid overdose deaths have surpassed the number of people dying in car crashes, nationwide.

In the last five years, overdose deaths in the Sioux Falls area have gone up 130%.

According to the CDC an estimated 94 people died, a majority from the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, in South Dakota in the last year. Dealers are lacing fentanyl in most illegal drugs. It only takes what’s equivalent to four grains of salt to kill someone. Most people have no idea what they’re getting when they buy a pill or powder from a drug dealer.

There is a tool to detect this deadly synthetic drug, but as our investigation discovered, in South Dakota it’s illegal to possess fentanyl testing strips, even if they would save lives. We found that people working in harm reduction had no idea what they were doing is against the law.

USD Professor Melissa Dittberner speaks to medical students about addiction

Melissa Dittberner is a University of South Dakota addiction studies professor. On this night she’s instructing medical students on treating addiction.

Dittberner also trains people on how to use Narcan to reverse an opioid overdose and passes out care packages to those at risk, such as people who are homeless, which contain fentanyl testing strips.

“I really think we need to make it “not” a stigma issue. Sometimes people who use substances are stigmatized because they use, and then it’s certain substances. If this were an alcohol matter would it be the same problem? I think it’s just taking away that stigma to get people the tools they need to get the help they need and understand addiction is a disease of the brain and not a willpower issue.”

Melissa Dittberner, University of South Dakota Addiction Studies Professor

Fentanyl testing strips cost about $1 each. A drug user can take a small quantity of the substance, add water, and dip a strip into it. One red stripe means it has fentanyl; two stripes mean it doesn’t. The strips don’t tell you how much fentanyl is present in the drug.

Fentanyl testing strips

Kennecke: Why are fentanyl strips so important?
Dittberner: Well they keep people alive. Fentanyl is being put into almost any drug.

However, fentanyl testing strips remain illegal in about half of the states in this country, because they are considered drug paraphernalia.

“I was really shocked, actually; especially the fact that handing them out might be a problem,” Dittberner said.

“Any drug paraphernalia in South Dakota is illegal,” Reynold Nesiba said.

According to South Dakota law, “Drug paraphernalia is any product or material for testing or analyzing.”
South Dakota Democratic Senator Reynold Nesiba plans to introduce legislation in the next session that would change that by adding a line to the law that reads: “drug paraphernalia does not include any testing equipment used to determine whether a controlled substance has been adulterated with a synthetic opioid. “

SD State Senator Reynold Nesiba, (D)Sioux Falls, plans to introduce legislation to legalize fentanyl testing strips

“We won’t want people using illegal drugs in South Dakota, but we also want to mitigate the harm for those who are using it. We know that even people who want to get into treatment often times have to wait weeks or months to get access to care. We want to keep people alive. This is a common sense measure to allow people to test drugs they are using and if they detect fentanyl, to simply not take it.”

South Dakota State Senator Reynold Nesiba, (D) Sioux Falls

Kennecke: Have you ever heard of anyone getting arrested for having fentanyl strips?
Sioux Falls Police Officer Sam Clemens: No. I talked with one of the drug detectives and we’ve heard of the fentanyl strips on the coasts. We haven’t seen any of that in Sioux Falls.

While Sioux Falls police say they haven’t seen the fentanyl testing strips yet, we know some people do have them from the simple fact that Dittberner and her students handed them out. Officer Clemens says it would be up to a police officer’s discretion whether to pursue charges for a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“It’s equivalent to a speeding ticket or running a red light. We’re not going to solve addictions by arresting people,” Clemmens said.

Nesiba says lawmakers will have to take another look at paraphernalia laws anyway because of the legalization of medical marijuana and the potential legalization of recreational weed in November. But reducing fentanyl poisoning deaths is a top priority for Nesiba.

“Fentanyl test strips aren’t the only solution to this problem. We need to continue to make sure that people have access to care, to get off the drugs, to be able to have addiction treatment, and simply to have greater access to treatment,” Nesiba said.

Dittberner says keeping people alive until they can get help is the goal.

Kennecke: Would you risk being charged with a crime to hand out fentanyl strips?
Dittberner: Yeah, absolutely; absolutely I would.
Kennecke: Why?
Dittberner: Because I know it will save people’s lives. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard about it, I know it. And yeah it’s worth it to be able to save someone’s life.

Several states recently legalized fentanyl testing strips and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has called for legalization as overdoses rise.