Portland’s Star Bar has operated in the city since it opened 12 years ago. Owner Josh Davis says he has seen the way drug use has changed in the city and wanted to do what he could to address it. As reported by PDX Eater, Davis began offering free fentanyl test strips to anyone who needs them. He also has started to carry naloxone behind the bar in the case of an opioid overdose. Davis joins us to share why he started providing this service to bar patrons and community members.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Twelve years ago when the Star Bar opened in Southeast Portland, many of us had never heard of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Now with the drug being put in heroin and meth and counterfeit prescription pain pills, it’s fueling a terrifying increase in overdoses. As reported by EaterPdx. It’s led Josh Davis, the owner of the Star Bar, to offer free fentanyl test strips to his customers. Josh Davis joins us now with more. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Josh Davis: Thank you.
Dave Miller: So I noted this change, a very visible change, in drug culture in drug makeup, in Oregon, around the country, that we see broadly. I’m curious if you see that even within your bar?
Josh Davis: I do and it’s been something that’s changed. I think that in the bar, there’s been casual drug use in most bars. There is casual drug use, and just the makeup of how people interact, what goes on. I have seen a change, thankfully, we have not seen an overdose, knock on wood, but I’ve been hearing about it and it is something that is a concern, now.
Miller: When you say that you’ve seen a change, what exactly do you mean?
Davis: For some instances, it’s just hearing rumors about fentanyl being in certain substances, for other instances. It’s how customers act; it’s difficult to say, but it used to be where you could very clearly tell if somebody had had cocaine for example, their behavior has changed. Then that even progressed to where methamphetamines were introduced into cocaine, and then their behaviors even changed further, and you could tell when there was meth in the cocaine that they were taking part of. And then, now…
Miller: I’m curious what you saw, was it just even more hyperactivity or irritability, or not that you’re an expert on this, but it seems like you do have a really interesting vantage point. I mean, when you’re saying when it was clear that meth was being added to cocaine, how did that change the experience behind the bar?
Davis: For the bartender it’s more of like from an observational standpoint, there wasn’t more aggression, not by our customers. There is more aggression from the people, the transient people, the people outside, that walk up and down the streets and kind of harass the customers or the passersby. There’s been significantly more aggression there. But I don’t think that’s tied 100% just to meth. I think that that comes with a lot of the fear and desperation of the current situation. But inside the bar with the customers, there is, I think you kind of nailed it. The hyperactivity, the more manic behavior, the more noticeable grinding of the teeth. The more, kind of frantic, ‘like, I need to have this conversation with you, now,’ versus the more casual kind of hyperactivity that you would get from cocaine.
Miller: When did you first hear about bars in other cities offering fentanyl test strips?
Davis: I heard about it this year. Honestly, a friend of mine used to own a vintage store in Oakland and her vintage store participates in Fentcheck.org , and Fentcheck started in the Bay Area. She told me about the program and, like, ‘Wow, that’s a great program.’ So I reached out to Fentcheck to see if there was anything like that in Portland and there wasn’t, but one of the founding members of Fentcheck is actually from the Portland area and he has just moved back. So he wanted to make it a priority to get Fentcheck started and going in the Portland area, because he does see a need for it the same as in the Bay area and Los Angeles and New York, where there are other bars that participate in this.
Miller: Why did you want to start offering these strips?
For me, it was just kind of a no brainer. It’s harm reduction, plain and simple. It’s not condoning drug use or anything, advocating for it. It’s just acknowledging that it exists and it’s trying to provide a safer environment for people to make more informed decisions. So it’s why I have Narcan on hand, it’s why I offer the strips, It’s just providing people more information and a safer environment.
Miller: Narcan is the overdose reversing drug. One of the brand names for the drug, Naloxone, that we’ve talked about here and there over the years. I want to turn to that in just a few minutes. But can you explain how these test strips work, or what people can do with them?
Davis: Yeah. They’re extremely effective in detecting fentanyl, and basically what you do is you take a small sample size of the substance in question, whether it’s ‘molly’ or ‘meth’ or cocaine or what have you. A small sample size, you mix that sample in about one ounce, one and a half ounces of water. You put the test strip in for 30 seconds, you take the test strip out and wait five minutes, and it will tell you with almost absolute certainty if there is fentanyl present in the sample. Now, I want to emphasize that part because if there is fentanyl in the substances that you have but not in the sample, it’s obviously not going to detect it. So it’s important to make sure that everything is being mixed properly before you do a sample.
Miller: Do you get the sense that if people use the test strip and it does test positive for fentanyl, that they throw out the drugs that they bought?
Davis: Probably? I would…
Miller: …because otherwise, why would they be doing the test, I guess. I’m just wondering, if people have bought drugs for a fix and then it turns out it does test positive, how likely they are to heed the warning inherent in that positive result?
Davis: I would say that if they’re taking the time to do this is just a speculation, because one of the great things about the test strips is that they are anonymous. We have a jar on the bar that people don’t need to interact with the bartender. They don’t need to ask for the strips, they can just come in and grab it. So we aren’t getting a lot of follow up on what happens with it. But my assumption is that if people are taking the time to actually grab the test strips, they’re not in that situation where they’re overly desperate or ‘in need of the fix,’ as you say, they’re actually at the point where it’s casual drug use, because that’s really what the fentanyl test strips are designed for, is the casual drug user, the people that do it, you know, maybe it it’s friends getting together for the first time in five years or something like that. It’s not for the everyday user or the people that have addiction issues.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Josh Davis, the owner of Star Bar in Southeast Portland. He offers fentanyl test strips to patrons or to anybody who’s come in, and has the overdose reversing drug Naloxone on hand, as well, in case of an overdose emergency. Do you have a sense for how many strips people are taking out of that jar? Any given week?
Davis: It’s usually between thirty and fifty, for us.
Miller: And how much are you spending on the strips?
Davis: We spend a dollar a strip.
Miller: And that’s just money that you’re spending $50 or so a week, because you don’t want people to die?
Miller: My understanding is that when you reached out to the Fentcheck folks to say you wanted to provide these trips to people in your bar, they said they also wanted you to have Narcan or Naloxone available. Up until that point, it wasn’t behind the bar?
Davis: Correct, up until that point, it was not behind the bar.
Miller: How easy or hard was it for you to get Naloxone?
Davis: So, it’s kind of a long answer to that question because it’s actually very easy to get. That said, it took me quite a bit of research and contacting people, and I guess kind of fact checking, before I actually got any of it, so it was easy to get, once I had the information, but it was not easy to get that information. Basically to kind of clarify, what I just said, is that you can get it from most pharmacies, pharmacists can prescribe it and it is free. You do have to put your name down; not an establishment name, not an organization name, and it is tracked Federally and on the State level as a concern in the Controlled Substance Database. That said, with Measure 110 and where we’re at in Oregon, is that that information is not available to your doctor. That information is not available to your insurance. It just goes into the database, and the only time that it could ever be pulled is with the…under the HIPPA Rules, where it could be pulled for a lawsuit. So I didn’t know any of that and I was reluctant to have it because I thought that it would be associated with my name, my insurance would go up, my doctor would have questions. None of that is the case. But my name is attached to it in the database, but that database can only be pulled under very certain guidelines.
Miller: Have you given training to your staff for how to use this in the case of emergency?
Davis: Yes. I was trained by the person who started Fentcheck, who is also a Registered Nurse, and I was trained by him. Then I went through and individually trained all of my staff members after that.
Miller: Do you know if other bars or clubs have followed your lead and started offering the test strips and have Narcan behind the bar?
Davis: Unfortunately, I don’t. With the test strips, the founder of Fentcheck or one of the founders of Fentcheck just recently, like in the last two weeks, has moved back to Portland, so he’s going to start personally talking to different bars, nightclubs, venues, etcetera to try to get them on board with Fentcheck. It’s more of an outreach kind of thing, now that he’s in town. With the Narcan, I am the only one that I know of that has it. I hope there are a lot more other bars out there that have it. I feel like it’s vital, it’s necessary in this day and age, unfortunately. So it would be great if other places have it, but I honestly don’t know. There’s no place that I know of that publicly says that they have it.
Miller: How do you explain this? What seems like a broad reticence on the part of this one industry to do what you’ve been doing?
Davis: I don’t know. In places like San Francisco, New York, Boston, it’s becoming more popular, in Seattle having the Narcan; behind the bar’ it’s just common sense and a lot of places have it and for whatever reason, Portland’s has been, and and a lot of places in California, because of the way that the laws were written, the lack of available information about it, the, kind of feeling that, you know, you’re going to be monitored or put on a list if you get this thing, that you’re being watched and overseen that that is probably what is causing the, as you said, reticence, like the slow-tack on it and the, the ability to have it. It’s not something that’s just readily available, where you can just, you know, order it online from the manufacturer or something, you actually have to go to, you have to make a lot of effort, and a lot of bar owners, especially after the pandemic, a lot of restaurateurs, a lot of venue owners don’t have a lot of extra time because we’re still trying to recover from you know, 2020.
Miller: Have you ever heard back from anybody who comes to you, to say, you might have saved my life?
Davis: No, I have not. But I have heard a significant amount of people, that may or may not be customers, that have reached out to the bar through social media or email and just been like, ‘I think it’s amazing that you offer the fentanyl test strips. I’ve had a coworker, a friend overdose, they didn’t know, this is great.’ That kind of feedback, but I have not heard anybody come back specifically to the bar and say ‘Thanks, you’ve saved my life, like we detected fentanyl.’
Miller: Josh Davis, thanks for your time today, I appreciate it.
Miller: Josh Davis is the owner of Star Bar in Southeast Portland. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.
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