Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill in Shawnee on Thursday legalizing use of fentanyl test strips and increasing criminal penalties for manufacture and trafficking of fentanyl-laced drugs. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
SHAWNEE — Gov. Laura Kelly had the late Cooper Davis and Sebastain Sheahan in mind Thursday when signing into law bipartisan legislation designed to save lives by decriminalizing in Kansas use of test strips capable of detecting presence of fentanyl in drugs.
Davis, 16, and Sheahan, 21, are among the growing roster of Kansans who lost their lives to the fentanyl scourge. They never had benefit of a Kansas law removing test strips from the state’s definition of “paraphernalia,” which subjected people possessing the strips to criminal prosecution.
A surge in overdose deaths in Kansas and elsewhere has been driven by availability of counterfeit prescription medicines such as Percocet as well as cocaine and other illegal drugs containing fentanyl. It’s a synthetic drug up to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. A few grains of fentanyl could be fatal and users of illegal substances cannot visually discern presence of fentanyl.
“Overdoses caused by fentanyl have devastated communities,” Kelly said during a bill-signing ceremony at Johnson County Mental Health Center’s adolescent treatment center. “By decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, we are providing the resources needed to combat the opioid and fentanyl epidemic so that families and loved ones no longer have to feel the pain of a preventable death.”
Kelly said future work to counter addiction had to concentrate on diminishing demand for illegal drugs. She also said Kansas ought to expand eligibility for Medicaid so expansion of prevention services could help address mental health challenges contributing to the illness of addiction.
The 2023 Legislature voted overwhelmingly for passage of Senate Bill 174, which included the test strip provision enabling people to legally test for presence of fentanyl, ketamine and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid or GHB. After three years of wrangling among the House, Senate and Democratic governor as well as advocacy by individuals with a personal stake in reform, the Legislature voted for the bill by a 9-to-1 margin.
The bill amended state law to make manufacturing a fentanyl-related controlled substance in pill or capsule form a drug severity level 1 felony rather than the lesser level 2 felony. The new law would require presumptive prison and doubling the maximum duration of incarceration for manufacturing controlled substances containing fentanyl. That sentence would not be subject to appeal under Kansas statute.
Libby Davis, a Shawnee nurse and mother of Cooper Davis, created a nonprofit foundation to spread awareness of fentanyl danger in wake of her teen son’s death in August 2021. He apparently took a counterfeit Percocet pill that he didn’t realize contained fentanyl. His death was among more than 100,000 in the United States linked to drug overdoses in 2021.
“I want to applaud the Kansas House and Senate for recognizing this and for being willing to meet all Kansans where they’re at,” Davis said. “The fentanyl crisis impacts families all across Kansas, and it has impacted mine. We’ve been on a mission to support all things that will save lives from being lost to fentanyl and these testing strips certainly fall into that category. Fentanyl testing strips could have saved Cooper’s life.”
She said research indicated routine use of fentanyl test strips improved opportunities for people to modify their drug use patterns. The distribution of test strips could serve to connect individuals to resources and programs to assist them with the disease of addiction, she said.
The test-strip legislation had a rocky path to enactment because some Kansas lawmakers argued availability of the strips would encourage illegal drug use.
“It’s truly an honor to stand here today,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. “Fentanyl is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It does not discriminate. It destroys people and it destroys lives.”
He said Senate Bill 174 was a first step in the fight against a terrible drug and was “proud to stand with Governor Kelly as we continue to work together to save lives.”
Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said signing of the legislation was an example of putting into action the values of kindness, compassion and love of neighbors.
“By decriminalizing fentanyl testing strips, we are helping Kansans protect themselves from a deadly poison that has taken far too many lives, including the tragic and profoundly painful loss of far too many teenagers and young adults in our state,” Probst said.
Probst said he learned from people involved in addiction recovery that legalizing test strips would be an effective tool against overdose poisoning and death. The state representative spoke of Hutchinson resident Brandy Sheahan Harris, the mother of Sebastain Seahan. Sebastain Sheahan had relapsed after three years sober, Sheahan Harris said. He consumed something containing fentanyl and died in April 2022.
“Every bit of his future and potential was taken away,” Probst said. “I can’t imagine the pain that parents feel who lose children. I’m glad that we’re here today to make this happen for Brandy and Libby.”
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