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New Kansas enforcement effort unlikely to help fentanyl crisis, policy experts say

Oxycodone pills
Tommy Farmer
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation/AP
These pills were made to look like Oxycodone, but they're actually an illicit form of the potent painkiller fentanyl. A surge in police seizures of illicit fentanyl parallels a rise in overdose deaths.

Increased enforcement efforts coupled with harsher penalties for distributing fentanyl is common in just about every state as legislators react to the growing number of overdose deaths.

Last month, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Kansas attorney general’s office boasted about a new joint effort that seized 25,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills — suspected of containing fentanyl — in Wichita.

The seizure was part of what the agencies are calling the Joint Fentanyl Impact Team, an enforcement effort focused on “identifying and disrupting fentanyl trafficking and distribution networks,” according to a news release.

“The joint fentanyl impact team is something that really reflects the need for cooperation among law enforcement and dealing with the fentanyl crisis,” said Attorney General Kris Kobach, who oversees the KBI.

But drug policy experts, including those at the Drug Policy Alliance, say enforcement and seizure efforts like these don’t work.

“It’s really just a whack-a-mole effect,” said Matt Sutton of the Drug Policy Alliance. “As long as we continue with that approach of supply-side interdiction, increased enforcement, we will continue to see a more dangerous drug supply. We will continue to see more overdoses.”

According to the state, 678 people died in 2021 from drug overdoses.

Increased enforcement efforts coupled with harsher penalties for distributing fentanyl is common in just about every state as legislators react to the growing number of overdose deaths.

Kansas state law was amended this year to make manufacturing a fentanyl-related substance in pill or capsule form an even harsher felony sentence.

Drug policy experts equate new enforcement efforts against fentanyl to the War on Drugs started by President Richard Nixon, which critics say ultimately didn’t stop the supply of illegal drugs.

“Constituents want to know that somehow this issue is being addressed,” Sutton said.

“But really … at the end of the day, that’s not going to solve the problem. The only thing that is really going to solve the problem is addressing the demand by really ensuring that people have the public health resources that they need.”

Kobach said critiques of law enforcement efforts aren’t always accurate.

“I think it's hard to make a blanket statement that new enforcement techniques always fail because some enforcement measures are easily counteracted,” he said.

“Others are not so easily evaded or gotten around. And I think some of our new ones are going to be very difficult for the smugglers to get around.”

When asked what those new enforcement efforts might look like, Kobach wouldn’t elaborate. He said his office will issue a news release later this month.

“I will save the surprise for that,” he said.

New studies showthat enforcement efforts actually lead to more overdose deaths as people who use drugs search for an alternative when the supply is diminished through seizures.

Kobach denied those claims.

“It’s hard to … isolate in a scientific study and say, ‘OK, this is what happened because of this enforcement effort,’” Kobach said.

Other efforts from the attorney general’s office to address the fentanyl crisis include an awareness campaign broadcast statewide by television stations.

His office also oversees the Kansas Fights Addiction Act Grant Review Board, which will eventually allocate the millions of dollars the state receives from opioid settlement funds.

Those grants, which will be distributed later this year, will focus on prevention and treatment for substance use.

While not part of the current discussion, Kobach said settlement funds could go to enforcement efforts.

“It’s certainly a possibility,” he said.

As an alternative to enforcement, the Drug Policy Alliance said agencies should instead focus on prevention, treatment and mitigating harms from substance use.

“As long as we continue to address a public health issue through a criminal justice approach, we're not going to solve the problem,” Sutton said.

In the same bill that increased penalties for manufacturing fentanyl in Kansas, the state also legalized fentanyl test strips – a step experts say is important to decreasing the risk of overdose deaths.

That law went into effect July 1. Kobach said it’s too early to tell whether it’ll make a difference.

“Hopefully a year from now we'll have some good data on how effective it's been,” he said.

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.