As opioid overdoses spike in Kansas, senators block fentanyl test strip provision
Sen. Molly Baumgardner was among those who opposed a provision allowing the legal use of fentanyl testing strips in Kansas. Advocates argue the strips can save lives but senators rejected the policy over concerns this would enable drug use. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — An effort to allow Kansans access to a tool that tests for the drug fentanyl is heading in the wrong direction after the Kansas senate blocked a provision legalizing it.
Senators chose last week to send a bill clearing Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabis medication back to a conference committee over a provision that would allow for legal fentanyl test strips. The test strips are a response to a growing opioid addiction epidemic, driven in large part by fentanyl, widespread in Kansas and many other nearby states.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid frequently combined with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. When people do not know if or how much of the powerful drug they are consuming, the risk of overdose spikes.
Lawmakers eventually removed that provision from the bill, despite a bipartisan coalition of legislators backing it in the House, and Senators passed it without opposition. Those who opposed the measure said it would further enable drug users.
However, proponents of the strips lamented the exclusion of what they viewed as a useful tool in addressing the wave of overdose deaths.
“Those strips are a way to help save lives out there,” said Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat. “There’s a rash of fentanyl out in the community, unfortunately, and it seems as though fentanyl strips are a way to help our citizens prevent unnecessary deaths and can be used in ways that are just about information.”
About half of all states, including Wisconsin, Tennessee and New Mexico in recent months, have approved bills legalizing these strips in response to their problems with opioid use. According to the Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center, overdose deaths from fentanyl topped all other drug-related overdose deaths in Kansas in 2021.
Earlier this year, Kansas Department of Health Environment officials shared the provisional result of a report on drug overdose deaths between Jan. 1 and June. 30, 2021. Of the 338 deaths from drug overdoses in Kansas, 149 were related to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs.
It also marked a 54% increase in fatalities from an overdose during the same six-month period in 2020.
The test strips are currently labeled as drug paraphernalia in Kansas, which means an individual can be charged with a crime for possessing them. Harm-reduction advocates say these strips can guide individuals to treatment and make it safer if they are using fentanyl.
But Senate Republicans argued the strips would only enable those addicted to drugs.
“Fentanyl strips don’t save lives,” Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg. “Let’s be clear. There are individuals that want fentanyl in the drug that they’ve purchased or acquired.”
Baumgardner added that these strips are unlike other strips that determine exactly how much of the substance is present, instead only detecting if the drug is present.
All but three Republicans voted to send the bill back to the conference committee.
During the GOP caucus meeting before the debate, Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, said allowing the use of these strips was not helping but “giving up” on those suffering from addiction.
“The best warning to figure out whether your drug might have fentanyl in it is, you know, don’t buy the illegal drugs,” Warren said. “Where’s the personal accountability in this policy?”
Warren said this policy was a gateway to free and clean needle programs. Another concern she had was that the fentanyl test strip did not receive a committee hearing in the Senate.
However, a different bill passed by the House with the same provision did not receive a hearing or consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly a year. The measure was not acted upon further.
“‘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 the new source or the individual years into recovery,’” said Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, quoting a study from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “I think this is an opportunity to bring Kansas closer in line with a growing number of states to chance to save lives.”
Visit PreventOverdoseKS.org for resources, epidemiological data and information on Kansas’ efforts to prevent drug overdose. Those in need of assistance can call Kansas’ SUD hotline at 866-645-8216 or visit FindTreatment.gov to locate treatment services.
Pharmacies offering naloxone, a medication capable of reversing an opioid overdose, can be found at 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 grant funding to DCCCA to operate a naloxone program. DCCCA has a limited supply of naloxone kits for people unable to access the medication through a pharmacy.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.