Unfiltered: ‘Nobody deserves to die because they use drugs’

It’s not uncommon to see New York City native Tino Fuentes taking a stroll around the South Bronx, checking on drug users to make sure that they don’t run the risk of overdosing.

It’s also not uncommon to see him teaching and training communities in cities like Paris and Dublin on how to prevent and treat drug overdoses related to fentanyl.

In this latest episode of Unfiltered, Fuentes, a former drug dealer and user, has been traveling the world working as a drug harm reduction consultant and making it his personal mission to save lives.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control, there were an estimated 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 — and more than 20,000 were related to fentanyl, a type of opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Growing up poor in the East New York section of Brooklyn and raised by a single mother who did not speak English, Tino was no stranger to the daily struggle of survival. At a young age, he was already aware of the looming presence drugs had in his community. “The people who were eating there — you know, the people who were living well — were selling drugs. … I had family members that used drugs; friends, people I grew up with. It’s always been around me.”

Tino began to sell all kinds of drugs to support himself — and began using them in the process. “[In] New York City in the ’80s … there were lots of drugs. If you bought coke, you bought coke. If you bought heroin, you was buying heroin. Whatever you bought, that’s what you were buying. Of course, once in a while, you would run into something that was not what it was.”

Tino remembers when he first heard of fentanyl overdoses: In the 1990s, a type of heroin called “Tango and Cash” started killing drug users. It was later discovered that Tango and Cash was laced with fentanyl.

A lethal dose of heroin on the left, next to a lethal dose of fentanyl on the right. (Photo: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab)

Eventually, Tino stopped dealing and using drugs. “I got tired of people dying. There might be something there that could prevent at least some of these deaths.”

That’s when Tino ventured into the field of harm reduction, working with St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx — the heart of New York City’s opioid crisis, where drug overdose is so dire that if it were a state, it would have the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation, after West Virginia.

Two years ago, Tino consulted with doctors and health officials, and discovered a way he could use urinary pH strips to detect fentanyl as a means of preventing overdoses. By providing drug users with the strips, he believed it would help identify which drug batches were laced with the fatal opioid. “While testing won’t stop drug use, it can prevent drug overdose, in turn preventing someone from dying,” he wrote on his GoFundMe.

In the beginning of his outreach work, he would make a deal with drug users: If the batch tested negative for fentanyl, he would give them $10. If it was positive, they’d sit down and have a conversation. “Not once did I ever have to pay that $10,” he says, “because every time I tested, it was positive.”

Several pH strips Tino has used to test heroin batches across the country for fentanyl. The center strip shown has one red line, meaning it detected fentanyl. (Photo: Yahoo News)

The strips work by dipping them into drug residue mixed with water for 15 seconds. Within five minutes of being pulled out, they reveal whether or not fentanyl is present: One line means positive, two lines mean negative.

Although, Tino eventually became the director of outreach at St. Ann’s, he recently resigned from that position so that he would not put the organization in legal jeopardy.

Today, after years of pushback from government and health officials, Tino is invited all over the country and the world to speak and train others on how to use pH strips to detect fentanyl in drugs.

Ultimately, Tino knows the pH strips are not the solution, but are only a means of working towards getting the nation talking about this global issue. “Look, this is nothing,” he says, holding up a pH strip. “This is a strip, a piece of paper. … It’s a way for me to be able to talk to you, [and say] ‘There’s fentanyl in it, these are the things that you can do.’”

“The next person who dies could be your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. Everybody’s affected,” he warns. “And every time there’s some opioid summit, or whatever it is they want to call it, it has to do about pills or we’re suing the pharmaceutical companies, or whatever. F*** all that s***. We’re past that.”

“Find a way to keep people alive.”