TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers are again attempting to legalize fentanyl test strips to keep people alive amid a surging overdose pandemic.
“We are not used to dealing with manufactured pills that kill people at this level. So the danger of that has really taken the nation by surprise,” said State Representative Eric Smith, a Republican from Burlington. “We have to deal with it in Kansas.”
Smith, who is also the Coffey County deputy sheriff, said the state is taking a multi-pronged approach that includes increasing penalties for drug dealers and producing the highest possible level of drug offenses, while also focusing on non-criminal streets.
The bill passed unanimously on Thursday in the House. A similar bill decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, date-rape drug test strips, and creating 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 manufacturing. Some fentanyl pills contain only small amounts of opioids, while other pills have large doses that could easily kill someone.
A bill on fentanyl test strips failed to pass the Senate last year.
Substance use experts say that treating addiction like a disease is far more productive than trying to stunt your way out of an overdose crisis.
“We need to move away from the criminalization that 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 in leveling overdose deaths before COVID-19. Overdoses have increased during the pandemic.
In 2012, Rhode Island had zero fentanyl overdose deaths, according to state data. By 2016, that number had risen to 197 deaths, accounting for more than half of all overdoses. But from 2016 to 2019, fentanyl overdose deaths remained fairly stable, never exceeding 226.
Peterson said this was due to a combination of factors such as having access to Narcan, the brand name of the anti-overdose drug naloxone, and being vocal about drug use. This could mean a substance abuse specialist telling someone how to use drugs safely. The state has gone so far as to pass safe consumption sites or places where people can do drugs.
“There was a sense of, quoting, not quoting, enabling people. … You’re just enabling them,” Peterson said, referring to Narcan distribution policies. “Yes, I’m allowing them to survive.”
Lindsey Vuolo, vice president of law and health policy at the Partnership to End Addiction, echoed Peterson’s sentiment. She said that prosecuting people who supply the drugs should be done carefully because most of those arrested are low-level offenders who are quickly replaced.
Vuolo said addiction changes the chemical makeup of someone’s brain, which can cause someone to continue using even in the face of more serious consequences.
“We’ve been trying this strategy for a while,” he said. “It didn’t work out very well.”
Rep. Boog Highberger, a Democrat from Lawrence, voted in favor of the bill. He said he often doesn’t support legislation that increases criminal penalties, but he said fentanyl is everywhere and something needs to be done.
“It’s killing people in our cities, in our cities, even in our rural areas,” he said.
A conviction for making fentanyl would come with mandatory jail time and double existing sentences in state law if the bill passes as currently written.
The legislation does not change the sentences around simple possession.
The proposal has had the backing of law enforcement agencies who say it attacks the root cause of the problem, the criminal organizations that keep a constant flow of drugs on the streets.
Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Tony Mattivi told lawmakers during his confirmation process that fentanyl is one of the biggest problems facing the KBI.
“We’re taking off the gloves,” he said earlier this month. We are “looking for” individuals and organizations trafficking in the state.
Attorney General Kris Kobach wants to increase criminal penalties. Mattivi told reporters that Narcan is important, as is education about 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 [email protected].
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