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Fentanyl test strips are sweeping college campuses. Our testing found they may not detect laced fake prescription pills.

We got fentanyl-laced pills from a recent bust and put fentanyl test strips to the test
We got fentanyl-laced pills from a recent bust and put fentanyl test strips to the test. 06:13

(Editor's Note: This story is not about fentanyl addiction, which is a separate serious issue. This story is for people who would never intentionally take fentanyl, and their families and their kids' friends. Sharing this story could save a life.)

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

They're intended to help young people avoid fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills and tainted recreational drugs. But as fentanyl test strips are normalized – from high school to college to bachelor parties – experts warn 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.

Percocet pills hid a deadly dose

He taught himself how to play piano. He played violin in the orchestra. He was a straight-A student. He starred in the school musical. He got a nearly perfect score on the SATs. He was on the track team and the soccer team. Zach was the kind of guy who was never sitting still. 

"He was really athletic. That was another reason I thought he wouldn't be interested in trying any kinds of substances," Zach's mother, Laura Didier explained.

But he did.

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

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

"Three weeks before he died at that desk, I was with him at that desk finalizing his applications for the (UC schools)," Laura Didier said.

She now treasures her son's college acceptance letters, including from UCLA, letters Zach never got to see. 

"Zach deserves to know where he would have gotten in," she said.

Fentanyl blamed in 1 of 5 California youth deaths

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 to keep Narcan nearby.

Within a year, fentanyl would be blamed for one in five deaths of young people in California between the ages of 15 and 24. A CBS News analysis of the most recent state data finds that the death rate remained nearly twice the pre-pandemic level through at least 2022, the most recent year with available data.

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

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

The message is changing from "just say 'no'" to "just say 'know'" and is focused on education and harm reduction instead of abstinence.

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

Test strips put to the test

Placer County Sheriff Detective Patrick Craven was the lead detective on Zach Didier's case. He's now leading a first-of-its-kind Opioid Investigation Unit in Northern California. 

"We are not coming across real pills anymore. We are only coming across counterfeit pills," Craven explained. 

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

With Narcan nearby and a dedicated safety officer nearby to administer it, we began by crushing what was sold by a dealer as Percocet M-30s.

First, we tested each pill with a law enforcement mass spectrometer, which confirmed the pills were actually fentanyl-laced counterfeits. Then we used the test strips. 

Test strips are generally pretty accurate (assuming they're purchased through a reliable source). However, the primary concern is user error.

Concerns test strips are vulnerable to user error

Unlike COVID tests, with fentanyl strips, one line is positive and two lines are negative and instructions vary from test to test. 

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

Some strips require that you test the whole pill, while others don't. That's a concern. 

"You're not going to test the entire thing because you're not going to be able to use it," Det. Craven notes. 

What is the "Chocolate Chip Cookie Effect"?

When we split one pill, per one test's instructions, running each half through the spectrometer, one half did not contain fentanyl, and the other did.

It's known as the "Chocolate Chip Cookie Effect." With prescriptions made in a lab, the medication is equally distributed. If you take half a pill you, get half the meds. 

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

And that can have lethal consequences

Each pill is different, experts warn

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

"If you test one pill, it does not guarantee that the next one isn't loaded with fentanyl," Laura Didier said, stressing that no two pills are the same.

Laura has learned a lot since Zach died and now shares her knowledge with kids at schools, with lawmakers at the State Capitol, and with parents through her non-profit work at where they provide resources like "the new drug talk" for parents to have with their kids.

"You're safer than Zach was," Laura explains. "He didn't know all the things you now know. And you guys can be part of the solution and share his story."

Among the lifesaving lessons she wants you to share: "The market is flooded with counterfeits. Do not take any pill that didn't come from a pharmacy. We didn't have that messaging back in in 2020."

Also, don't trust dealers who claim they've 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 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 has to be right."

If you test a pill yourself, she stresses that you still need Narcan nearby with someone sober to administer it. Narcan couldn't have saved Zach because he took his pill alone in his room. 

"It's really important for young people to understand that they will not be able to administer to 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 exactly know what I want to do … but I know I want to help people,'" Laura said.

She hopes that by sharing his story, he will.

Key fentanyl lessons to share with young people

If you decide to experiment with drugs and use fentanyl test strips to try to reduce the risk, you must understand: 

  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 drugs yourself and understand that you may miss the fentanyl due to the "Chocolate Chip Cookie Effect."
  4. Even with a negative test, you should have multiple doses of Narcan and someone sober nearby to administer it.
  5. Neither fentanyl test strips nor Narcan can save you from "Tranq," which is a powerful sedative now also showing up along with fentanyl in counterfeit pills and other drugs.

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