As opioid overdoses rise in Kansas, senators block deployment of fentanyl test strips

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TOPEKA — An attempt to give Kansans access to a tool that tests for the drug fentanyl is going in the wrong direction after the Kansas Senate blocked a provision legalizing it.

Senators voted last week to return a bill clarifying Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabis drugs to a conference committee for a provision that would allow for legal fentanyl test strips. The test strips are in response to a growing opioid addiction epidemic, caused in large part by fentanyl, that is rampant in Kansas and many other nearby states.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid commonly combined with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. When people don’t know if or how much they’re consuming the powerful drug, the risk of overdose increases.

The legislature eventually struck that provision out of the law, though a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers supported it in the House of Representatives, and senators passed it unopposed. Those who opposed the measure said it would continue to help drug users.

However, proponents of the strips bemoaned the exclusion of what they saw as a useful tool in combating the overdose death wave.

“These stripes are a way to save lives out there,” said Senator Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat. “Unfortunately, there is a rash of fentanyl in the community, and it seems like fentanyl strips are a way to help our citizens prevent unnecessary deaths and can be used in a way that’s all about information.”

About half of all states, including Wisconsin, Tennessee and New Mexico, have approved legislation legalizing these strips in recent months in response to their opioid use problems. Fentanyl overdose deaths surpassed all other drug-related overdose deaths in Kansas in 2021, according to the Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center.

Earlier this year, officials from the Kansas Department of Health Environment shared the preliminary findings of a report of drug overdose deaths between January 1 and June. 30, 2021. Of the 338 drug overdose deaths in Kansas, 149 were related to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs.

There was also a 54% increase in overdose deaths over the same six-month period in 2020.

The test strips are currently marked as drug paraphernalia in Kansas, meaning a person may be charged with a felony for their possession. Harm reduction advocates say these strips can guide individuals to treatment and make them safer when using fentanyl.

But Senate Republicans argued the stripes would only allow drug addicts.

“Fentanyl Strips Don’t Save Lives,” Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg. “So that we understand each other. There are people who want fentanyl in the drug they have bought or acquired.”

Baumgardner added that these strips are different from other strips, which determine exactly how much of the substance is present and instead only determine if the drug is present.

All but three Republicans voted to return the bill to the conference committee.

During the GOP caucus meeting ahead of the debate, Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, said allowing those strips to be used doesn’t help but “give up” addicts.

“The best warning to find out if your drug might contain fentanyl is, you know, don’t buy illegal drugs,” Warren said. “Where is personal accountability in this policy?”

Warren said this policy is a gateway to free and clean needle programs. Another concern she had was that the fentanyl test strip didn’t get a Senate hearing.

However, another bill passed by the House of Representatives with the same provision did not see a hearing or consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly a year. The measure was not pursued further.

“’This tool can be a life-saver for the teenager experimenting for the first time, the person suffering from a severe opioid use disorder, the concert-goer looking for a trip, the person seeking a substance of choice from the new source or the Individual uses years of recovery,’” said Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, citing a study by Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “I think this is an opportunity to bring Kansas closer to a growing number of states to save lives.”

Visit PreventOverdoseKS.org for resources, epidemiological data, and information on Kansas’ efforts to prevent drug overdose. People who need assistance can call the Kansas SUD hotline at 866-645-8216 or visit FindTreatment.gov to find treatment services.

For pharmacies that offer naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, see ktracs.ks.gov/pharmacists/naloxone-dispensing. Under Kansas law, KDHE says, pharmacists can legally dispense naloxone to patients without a prescription.

The Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services provides grants to the DCCCA to conduct a naloxone program. DCCCA has a limited supply of naloxone kits for people who cannot obtain the drug through a pharmacy.

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