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Governor Kelly says fentanyl test strips “will save lives.” Will Kansas lawmakers listen?

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s call to legalize fentanyl test strips during this week’s State address is reigniting a controversial fight after an earlier attempt to pass the strips failed due to opposition from Kansas Senate Republicans .

The strips, relatively inexpensive at about $1 a piece, detect fentanyl pills and other drugs, allowing people to avoid taking drugs laced with the often deadly substance, a potent synthetic opioid. All types of illegal drugs are now routinely laced with fentanyl, a common method of increasing their potency which greatly increases the chance of a fatal overdose.

But test strips are illegal under Kansas law, considered drug paraphernalia.

“We discussed it before. The reality is that test strips save lives and money,” Kelly, a Democrat, told the Republican-controlled legislature on Tuesday. place, long before he kills more Kansan”.

Support for test strips crosses party lines as Kansas and the nation grapples with the influx of fentanyl. From 2005 to 2016, the number of overdose deaths in Kansas generally hovered between 240 and 330 annually, before beginning an annual climb that has accelerated rapidly in recent years.

Overdose deaths rose from 393 in 2019 to 679 in 2021, according to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, with 347 of the deaths in 2021 attributable in part to synthetic opioids, which include fentanyl. Data for 2022 was not yet available.

The day-to-day consequences of the presence of fentanyl continue to play out in metropolitan Kansas City. Kansas City, Kansas, police announced Wednesday that they seized more than $100,000 worth of counterfeit fentanyl pills over the weekend; the department took about 150,000 pills in 2022. Forty fatal overdoses were reported in the city last year, most of which involved fentanyl.

Across the state line, a 22-year-old man from Kansas City, Missouri, was charged last week with possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute it in federal court; prosecutors say he was associated with three Belton teenagers who died of fentanyl overdoses last year.

An attempt to legalize stripes in Kansas stalled last spring after legislative negotiators removed the change from a drug-related package following objections from multiple Republican senators, even though the measure had the support of House Republicans.

Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican who was running for state attorney general at the time, said during a GOP caucus meeting at the time that the best warning about whether a drug contains fentanyl is not to buy illegal drugs. Warren, speaking to other Senate Republicans, asked, “Where is the personal accountability in this policy?”

Asked Wednesday by a Star reporter if she still remains against test strip legalization, Warren disputed the framing of the question. Warren said last year’s measure didn’t receive a full hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Warren chairs the committee and has let the legislation die.

“We have seen illegal drug abuse on a large scale and clearly the Kansans are suffering,” Warren said. “The last session, and whenever we are considering a major change in drug policy in Kansas, needs to be carefully scrutinized and listened to. That was not the case with the issue you asked about last session, and I haven’t seen a bill about it in this session.

On February 1, 2022, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to legalize fentanyl test strips.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat who has supported test strip legalization, expressed optimism that Kelly speaking up on the issue could help build more momentum behind legalization this year. And, he said, awareness has grown since last spring that test strips can be a life-saving tool.

“People have died in the last year, in my opinion, because we haven’t,” Probst said.

Representative Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said she expects a bill to be introduced next week that includes legalizing fentanyl testing. Testing, she said, would not solve the fentanyl crisis but it would help people.

“If they are on the drugs now, they will continue to take them. Let’s just hope we save lives,” she said.

As of September, fentanyl test strips remained illegal in 19 states, according to health news site STAT, even though the federal government has supported their use. In April 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced that federal funds could be used to purchase test strips.

Probst dismissed the notion that test strips could in any way facilitate drug use, a criticism embedded in comments by Warren and other lawmakers who have objected. Kansas is attempting to fight drug problems in 2023 with drug laws built on 1980s efforts to combat crack cocaine, he said.

“Giving someone fentanyl test strips and educating them about the dangers of fentanyl and giving them tools to protect themselves from drugs that they’re going to use anyway — there’s nothing about fentanyl test strips that helps a person use drugs. This keeps people alive,” Probst said.

Wichita has decriminalized test strips but Kansas law prevents access

Kansas’s largest city didn’t wait for the legislature to act. In September, the Wichita City Council voted to decriminalize possession of marijuana. The council also decriminalized test strips as part of that vote.

While the change means Wichita police officers are no longer writing subpoenas to have test strips, it’s effectively half a measure. Individuals may have the stripes under local ordinance, but social service agencies and government agencies will still not distribute them as long as they remain illegal under state law.

“Our people are still having trouble accessing fentanyl test strips, which means if you go online and want to buy fentanyl test strips, they’ll stop you because Kansas has a blanket law against it,” said the mayor of Wichita Brandon Whipple in a short interview.

Whipple, a former Democratic state legislator, said decriminalizing test strips is an easy step forward “when you think about saving lives and arming our citizens with the tools they need to ensure they don’t accidentally ingest this deadly opioid.” toxic”.

The researchers found that people who use the strips and find fentanyl in their medications will take safety measures, such as making sure someone is with them when they use or have naloxone, a drug used to stop an opioid overdose, nearby.

“This tool could be a life saver for the teen experimenting for the first time, the individual struggling with severe opioid use disorder, the concert goer looking for a road trip, the person using a favorite substance obtained from a new source, or the individual years of recovery,” wrote researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City in 2021 in the journal Health Affairs.

A pilot study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Brown University in 2018 and 2019 found that test strips reduced the risk of overdose among sex workers in Baltimore.

The study only involved about 100 people, but of the 68 people who completed a follow-up survey, 69 percent engaged in “harm-reducing behaviors” after using their test strips, such as asking someone to check them. or use a smaller amount of drugs.

Kansas’ top law enforcement official, Republican state Attorney General Kris Kobach, said he would follow law enforcement’s lead on test strips. He said he’s looking for data on how the test strips work.

“Obviously, the goal here is to save lives, right? The law enforcement implication is that you potentially make it easier for those who sell and buy prohibited drugs, including opioids… to purchase and advertise them as fentanyl-free,” Kobach told reporters Thursday.

Major Kansas law enforcement groups remain neutral on test strip legalization. Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist for associations of police chiefs, sheriffs and peace officers, said the main concern is whether lawmakers will eventually go further and create “safe havens” for drug-taking or set up programs to provide needles.

Needle exchange programs, which allow people to deposit used syringes and receive clean ones, are illegal in Kansas and Missouri. However, exchanges are operated in Kansas City and St. Louis.

“We think this is kind of the beginning of that process,” Klumpp said. “But at the same time, we recognize how serious this problem is.”

Lisa Gutierrez of The Star contributed to the reporting

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