Effort to decriminalize fentanyl test strips stalls in Kansas

States including Arizona, Nevada, Maine, Maryland, Wisconsin and North Carolina have removed fentanyl test strips from prohibited lists


Lisa Gutierrez, Katie Bernard
The Kansas City Star

TOPEKA, Kan. — A proposal in Kansas to decriminalize fentanyl test strips — designed to prevent overdoses — stalled Thursday as a Republican senator portrayed the move as a step toward marking the Sunflower State as some kind of safe haven for drug addicts.

“The best warning to figure out whether (the drug you are using) might have fentanyl in it is don’t buy the illegal drugs,” Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said in a meeting of Republican senators on Wednesday in expressing her opposition to the the change proposed by House Democrats.

Fentanyl test strips, which can detect the synthetic opioid in illegal, recreational drugs, are among the harm reduction strategies the White House sent to Congress.
Fentanyl test strips, which can detect the synthetic opioid in illegal, recreational drugs, are among the harm reduction strategies the White House sent to Congress. (Dr. Kim Sue/https://harmreduction.org/)

“So you know, where’s the personal accountability in this policy? And just one step closer to providing free needles, clean needles and things like that,” said Warren, who is running for attorney general.

Fentanyl test strips, which can detect the synthetic opioid in illegal, recreational drugs, are among the “harm reduction” strategies the White House sent to Congress last week to slow the nation’s record number of overdose deaths — 107,000 in the past 12 months.

The disposable, at-home tests can detect fentanyl in pills, powders and injectable drugs. Studies have shown them to be accurate, easy to use and easy to share. They’re cheap — about $1 each online.

But they’re classified as drug paraphernalia and thus illegal in most states, including Kansas and Missouri, though more states in recent months have decriminalized them.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat who had championed the effort to decriminalize the test strips in Kansas, said Thursday he doesn’t see “a clear path forward” for the proposal this session.

“Kansans will die from fentanyl overdoses in the coming year, and their deaths will fall squarely on Sen. Kellie Warren and every Senate Republican who voted to ensure the continued criminalization of fentanyl testing strips,” Probst told The Star on Thursday in a statement.

“Many states have realized the need to adopt this affordable, common sense reform. Upwards of 70% of all overdose deaths are attributable to fentanyl. The DEA has warned about an influx of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl. This is not a partisan issue. It is a Kansas, and a national, issue.”

His first effort received support from House colleagues, including those with connections to law enforcement who felt the strips could save lives and would not “create any problems” for law enforcement, he told the Star earlier this month.

He anticipated resistance from fellow lawmakers who think legalizing the test strips can aid and abet criminal activity, the same objection legislators in other states have voiced.

“Far too often we are reading stories of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who are dying because they’re being poisoned by fentanyl,” Probst said Thursday.

“We had an opportunity this year to legalize a simple tool that wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime, but has proven to save lives. Instead, a group of senators with antiquated thinking and a lack of compassion sat in judgment of people struggling with addiction and decided it’s better they should die than to give them a life-saving tool.

“I’m often disappointed with the Kansas Legislature, but I’ve never been more disappointed than I am with this decision. People will needlessly die because a handful of people in power decided that their hate and judgment means more than the lives of Kansans.”

The proposal stalled on in a conference committee in the Republican-dominated Legislature. On Thursday, the bill was stripped from a package that included policy legalizing any FDA-approved medications that contain THC.

House negotiators had sought to include the testing strip policy, citing its usefulness as a harm reduction tool.

But Warren warned her Republican colleagues against passing it, saying that making them legal in Kansas would send the message: “Kansas, come here and do your illegal drugs safely. So, if that’s the state policy that we want ...”

Rather than vote on the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, led an effort to have the bill sent back to conference committee so the fentanyl strip policy could be removed.

Baumgardner said the strips are problematic because they do not show how much fentanyl is in a substance — just whether it is present.

House negotiators in Thursday’s conference committee meeting reluctantly agreed to remove the policy from the bill.

“Fentanyl is unfortunately killing a lot of people,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said in the meeting. “The Senate has strong opposition to it. I’m not quite sure why we’re not more concerned about people dying but apparently we’re not.”

Nationwide, police, health departments and community groups that work with people who use drugs are doling out thousands of the test strips.

Tennessee and New Mexico were among the latest in March to remove the test strips from the prohibited list, joining Arizona, Nevada, Maine, Maryland, Wisconsin and North Carolina, among others.

Researchers have found that people who use the strips and find fentanyl in their drugs will take safety measures, such as making sure someone is with them when they use or having naloxone, a medication used to stop an opioid overdose, close by.

Some people might decide not to take a drug if it has fentanyl in it, though fentanyl’s quick high is exactly what some users seek, researchers say.

“This tool might be lifesaving for the teenager experimenting for the first time, the individual in the throes of a severe opioid use disorder, the concert-goer looking for a trip, the person using a preferred substance obtained from a new source, or the individual years into recovery,” researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City wrote last year in Health Affairs journal.

In Missouri, Rep. Trish Gunby, a St. Louis County Democrat, is still trying to gain support for a pilot program to distribute fentanyl testing strips in communities along Interstate 70 that are hard-hit by overdoses.

She said Thursday the project needs $500,000 to $1 million. She and supporters secured $100,000 this legislation session, which gives her hope. “It’s at least an acknowledgment that this is a problem,” she told The Star. “There aren’t easy solutions, but this is one piece to the puzzle.

“And people typically do not take drugs in the hopes of dying. So this saves those individuals.”

Gunby considers it a nonpartisan issue, important in both urban and rural areas. She said the proposal got attention, particularly from colleagues in some parts of the state where fentanyl deaths have now outpaced COVID-19 deaths.

She doesn’t think testing strips will encourage anyone to try drugs for the first time. But they give users information so they can use safely, or not at all.

“And the hope would be, in time, people would seek treatment,” said Gunby. “I don’t think anybody wants to see people dying.”

Landwehr said she plans to try again next year, and Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Baxter Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said he thinks the bill could gain more support once it receives a hearing.

“I think a lot of the problem with the testing strips is no one in the Senate had heard it,” Hilderbrand said.

Warren noted that the proposal had not received a hearing in either the House or Senate. “It changes, I don’t know, five or six words in the definition of what is illegal drug paraphernalia, but it sounds innocent and oh, it’s just a little change,” she said.

“But it is a huge change in the drug policy of Kansas that has not received a hearing in either chamber.”

She acknowledged “fentanyl is a problem. … But with this change in policy, are we giving up on our folks who suffer from addiction rather than getting them help?”

Researchers who have studied the strips say they are invaluable tools for connecting drug users with community groups and other resources that can get them off drugs altogether.

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©2022 The Kansas City Star

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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