Kansas lawmaker faults Biden, lack of border control for spike in drug overdoses

By: - March 9, 2023 11:03 am
Sen. Mark Steffen attributed rising drug cases to a lack of southern border control. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Mark Steffen attributes rising drug cases to a lack of southern border control. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Republican lawmaker Thursday blamed President Joe Biden’s administration for the rise in fentanyl overdose deaths in Kansas.

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, said Biden’s failure to secure the southern border was the root of Kansas’ growing drug overdose problem.

“We’ve got an open southern border and we’ve got a presidential administration that’s not doing their job to prevent the flow of narcotics into this country, and here we sit, trying to solve the problem downstream,” Steffen said during a Thursday Senate Public Health Committee hearing on legalizing fentanyl testing strips.

A false narrative that migrants are smuggling fentanyl in through an “open border” has become increasingly prevalent, especially in the Republican Party. National Public Radio research found that the vast majority of fentanyl is actually smuggled into the country through official ports of entry, concealed in cars and tractor-trailers. 

In 2021, Kansas had the highest number of drug-related deaths recorded in the past 20 years, with opioid cases nearly doubling between 2020 and 2021.

The number of accidental deaths caused by drugs went from 432 cases in 2020 to 635 cases in 2021. Opioids were involved in 416 of these deaths in 2021, compared with 239 similar deaths in 2020. Many of these overdoses involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Since fentanyl isn’t detectable without a test strip, people taking fentanyl-laced drugs are at a greater risk of overdose. In an effort to mitigate the problem, House Bill 2390 would legalize testing strips for fentanyl, ketamine and gamma hydroxybutyric acid, known informally as the date rape drug. The House passed the bill 121-0 on Feb. 23.

Current state law classifies these testing strips as drug paraphernalia. A bill legalizing fentanyl testing strips was shot down by Senate Republicans last year.  

The bill also would establish a Kansas overdose fatality review board to prevent and mitigate drug overdoses, a rising problem statewide.

Nick Reinecker, the only opponent of the bill who spoke at the hearing, said he was concerned that implementing the review board would grow the government. Reinecker, who identified himself as a private citizen, said the state should focus on free means of harm reduction, and “not go down these deep rabbit trail holes and everything like that.”

Steffen objected to the board’s creation as well, because he felt it was redundant and costly. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimated the board’s 3.5 full-time positions would cost $300,000 annually.

“How do we square together the creation of this monstrous, expensive board full of bureaucrats when we clearly already have a platform to do this?” Steffen said.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.