FentCheck is is an Oakland-based company that developed a test that detects if street drugs like cocaine or meth are laced with fentanyl. Credit: Laura Casey

In a society where “Just Say No” just hasn’t worked, two East Bay residents are running a scrappy nonprofit organization to make using drugs less deadly.

And Alison Heller and Dean Shold are taking their life-saving mission FentCheck to bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors – anywhere someone who might use recreational drugs or drug users may be – in the hopes that lives will be saved from the ridiculously deadly drug fentanyl.

“We want to normalize testing drugs for fentanyl,” Shold says. “If you’re doing cocaine (or any other drug), we want people to test it every time.”

Heller and Shold, both Oakland residents, founded FentCheck.org, a harm reduction nonprofit that helps recreational drug users “Survive the Night,” a project that appears to come from a place of love. They provide fentanyl test strips to venues where people may use, or even where people will just see and take them for future casual drug-testing use. And they pay for the test strips out of their own pockets while looking for funding for their nonprofit, the only one like it in the U.S.

The instructions on how to use FentCheck are illustrated by a tattoo artist from Berkeley’s FTW Tattoo Parlor. FentCheck is is an Oakland-based nonprofit that developed a test that detects if street drugs like cocaine or meth are laced with fentanyl. Credit: Laura Casey

Step into a participating venue like FTW Tattoo Parlor in Berkeley, The Avenue bar in Temescal or the upscale restaurant Duende in Oakland’s Uptown, and somewhere there will be a plastic fishbowl of sorts. In it is a business card-sized piece of paper with illustrations on it. Inside that folded paper is a fentanyl test strip, and illustrations — made by a Berkeley-based tattoo artist from Berkeley’s FTW Tattoo Parlor — to tell people how to use the strips. 

It’s as simple as taking a pregnancy test. Two lines on the strip indicate the drug is free from detectable fentanyl, one line means it has fentanyl in it.

“Think of it as two lines, two thumbs up,” Shold says.

And even if people trust their drug dealers, the duo says, they should still test their drugs. It’s a matter, they say, of informed consent.

Fentanyl is a cheap, powerful, and deadly opioid commonly masked in a variety of street drugs – from cocaine and oxycontin to powder heroin and methamphetamine. It is mixed in the drugs either intentionally or not, and without testing, users wouldn’t know if their cocaine, for example, had the cheaper, stronger fentanyl in it or not.

That’s a pricey gamble for people who use out of habit or for recreation. According to an article from the Center for Health Journalism, for the 12 months ending in August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded more than 85,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in the U.S., seemingly the highest number in the nation’s history. That is the equivalent of one commercial airliner crash in the U.S. per day. In California at that same time, nearly 8,000 people died of opioid overdoses. And many of those overdoses are due to fentanyl’s presence in drugs.

Heller and Shold say there are a network of life-saving programs for addicts, like needle exchange programs and treatment programs, but there isn’t much education or resources for the more casual user, including the “behind the kitchen” users like restaurant and bar staff.

That’s where FentCheck steps in. 

The duo, who met at Burning Man and soon realized they shared the same passion for harm reduction, say getting and using the testing strips should be like the effort to get condoms into the hands of sexually active people during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. There should be no shame in taking one and testing recreational drugs for something that could kill you, they say.

“Because the world is opening up, I’m hoping if you’re going to go to the theater and there’s one where you’re having dinner, then maybe you’ll think of picking one up for later,” Heller says.

Heller is an activist who volunteers for several nonprofit organizations and says she “cut my teeth” with the West Oakland Punks with Lunch organization that hands food and clean needles out in that neighborhood. Shold is a healthcare worker in Alameda County, who says he sees patient after patient come into local hospitals overdosing on drugs.

They started their project in late 2019, then solidified their mission in 2020 by meeting with other harm reduction organizations like San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Drug Policy Alliance while venues were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Testing the waters — and thinking there was a definite need for casual users to have these test strips available over New Years’ Eve 2021 celebrations despite the pandemic — through the FentCheck.org name, they posted their offering on the popular social news and discussion website Reddit. More than 100 people sent them their names and addresses so Heller and Shold could send them strips for their parties, for free. 

“People actually seem to care more about their safety than privacy with this,” Shold says.

Jason Lujick, pub owner of the Legionnaire Saloon on Telegraph in Oakland, keeps FentCheck and Narcan at his bar and restaurant. Credit: Laura Casey

At the Legionnaire Saloon on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, pub owner Jason Lujick has set aside part of his bar for the test strips and for dozens of boxes with the rapid prescription remedy for opioid overdose, Narcan, which FentCheck also provides to venues.

Lugick was immediately onboard with FentCheck’s mission when approached, saying that he lost two friends over 2020 due to fentanyl overdoses.

“They were like ‘OK, let’s do cocaine’ and they never came out of it,” he says. 

He said between his pub and the restaurant next door where he is the operations manager, they have lost several regular patrons to unintentional overdose.

Jason Lujick, pub owner of the Legionnaire Saloon on Telegraph in Oakland, keeps Narcan at his bar and restaurant. Credit: Laura Casey

“I was like … I don’t know what to do about this and when I met Ali, I was like this is what I can do about it,” he says. “I don’t want to see another person die of recreational drug use. I don’t want people to do drugs in my bar but I know people are going to do cocaine in my bar. I know people are going to do cocaine in my restaurant. I don’t want people to do cocaine here but I know people are going to do cocaine here. The fact is cocaine is an inherent part of” the bar industry.

“If cocaine is laced with fentanyl, I’d rather people know about it,” Lujick said.

So what should you do if you test an expensive amount of cocaine, for example, and it comes up positive for fentanyl? Heller and Shold say if you’re not willing to get rid of it, have a plan like doing the drug at different times to watch for overdose, and have Narcan available.

FentCheck is also making Narcan available to anyone, starting this month, and doing a test run at the Legionnaire. Partnering with CA Bridge, a harm reduction and treatment advocacy nonprofit organization, FentCheck placed the dozens of boxes of Narcan in the Legionnaire for anyone to pick up and use if they witness an overdose.

Josh Luftig, a physician’s assistant in the emergency room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and a founding member of CA Bridge, said healthcare usually doesn’t operate in bars but FentCheck is bringing healthcare to casual users in the hopes they don’t need to go to the emergency room or die because of an overdose.

“When they see these fentanyl strips and Narcan kits, people ask themselves, ‘Why is this here? What’s going on?’ and I hope they then say ‘I should probably be packing Narcan because I’m in the middle of an opioid epidemic and it saves lives,’” Luftig says. “Most people in our community should be carrying Narcan.”

And FentCheck is doing the hard work building relationships with venue owners to make the strips and the Narcan available to just about everyone.

“This is the most amazing thing ever,” Luftig said. “It’s a dream come true.”