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Kansas House votes to legalize fentanyl test strips because the drug is ‘killing people’

 Rep. Stephen Owens speaks on the House floor Thursday.
Blaise Mesa
/
Kansas News Service
Rep. Stephen Owens speaks on the House floor Thursday.

Fentanyl test strips are one of a handful of proposals hoping to curb the number of overdose deaths in the state.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers are again trying to legalize fentanyl test strips to keep people alive amid a pandemic of soaring overdoses.

“We aren’t used to dealing with pills being made that are killing people at this level. So the danger of this has really caught the nation by surprise,” said state Rep. Eric Smith, a Burlington Republican. “We need to deal with it in Kansas.”

Smith, who is also the Coffey County undersheriff, said the state is taking a multi-pronged approach that includes increasing penalties for dealers and making manufacturing the highest level drug felony possible while also focusing on non-criminal avenues.

The bill passed unanimously on the House floor Thursday. A similar bill that decriminalizes fentanyl test strips, test strips for date rape drugs and creates an overdose review board also passed without opposition.

Fentanyl test strips are currently labeled as drug paraphernalia, something the proposed bill would change. The strips do exactly as advertised — they determine if there is fentanyl in a drug.

There is little quality control in illegal drug making. Some pills with fentanyl have only small amounts of the opioid while other pills have large doses that could easily kill someone.

A fentanyl test strip bill failed to get passed the Senate last year.

Substance use experts say treating addiction as an illness is far more productive than trying to arrest your way out of an overdose crisis.

“We need to move away from the criminalization which hasn't worked and really look at some of the root causes of why people use drugs,” said Lisa Peterson, president of the Rhode Island Association for Addiction Professionals.

Peterson said Rhode Island was seeing some success leveling out overdose deaths before COVID-19. Overdoses shot up during the pandemic.

In 2012, Rhode Island recorded zero fentanyl overdose deaths, according to state data. By 2016, that number shot up to 197 deaths, accounting for more than half of all overdoses. But from 2016-2019, overdose deaths from fentanyl remain somewhat steady, never rising above 226.

Peterson said that was due to a combination of factors like access to Narcan, the brand name for the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and openly talking about drug use. That could mean a substance abuse specialist telling someone how to safely use drugs. The state has gone so far as to pass safe consumption sites, or places where people can do drugs.

“There has been a sense of, quote, unquote, enabling people. … You’re just enabling them,” Peterson said, referring to policies about distributing Narcan. “Yeah, I'm enabling them to stay alive.”

Lindsey Vuolo, vice president of health law and policy at the Partnership to End Addiction, echoed Peterson’s sentiment. She said going after people who supply the drugs should be done carefully because most people arrested are lower-level offenders who are quickly replaced.

Vuolo said addiction changes the chemical makeup of someone’s brain, which can make someone continue to use even when faced with more serious consequences.

“We’ve tried that strategy for a while,” she said. “It hasn’t worked very well.”

Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, voted in favor of the bill. He said he often doesn’t support legislation increasing criminal penalties, but he said fentanyl is everywhere and something needs to be done.

“It's killing people in our cities, in our towns — our rural areas, too,” he said.

A conviction for making fentanyl would come with mandatory prison time, and double the existing sentences in state law if the bill passes as currently written.

The legislation doesn’t change sentences around simple possession.

The proposal had support from law enforcement officials who say it attacks the root cause of the problem, criminal organizations keeping a steady flow of drugs on the street.

Kansas Bureau of Investigation director Tony Mattivi told lawmakers throughout his confirmation process that fentanyl is one of the biggest issues the KBI must tackle.

“We’re taking the gloves off,” he said earlier this month. “We’re coming after” people and organizations trafficking in the state.

Attorney General Kris Kobach wants to increase criminal penalties. Mattivi told reporters Narcan is important, as is education around drug use, along with tougher criminal penalties.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Blaise Mesa