KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On May 4, the Kansas senate blocked a proposal allowing Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabis medication due to a provision that would decriminalize fentanyl test strips.

The test strips are part of a widespread effort to counter a growing opioid poisoning crisis largely driven by fentanyl.

Legislators removed the provision from the bill, despite the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that supported it in the House, as those who opposed the provision said it would enable drug users.

“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 Republican from Leawood, said in a meeting of Republican senators, according to the Kansas Reflector. “Where’s the personal accountability in this policy?”

But supporters of the strips criticized the rejection of what they consider a powerful tool to combat skyrocketing overdose deaths, with the United States reaching over 100,000 drug overdose deaths last year, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths recorded the year prior, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those strips are a way to help save lives out there,” Sen. Jeff Pittman, Democrat of Leavenworth, said, according to the Kansas Reflector. “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.”

Pushing for harm reduction

Nearly half of all states, including Wisconsin, Tennessee, and North Carolina, approved legislation legalizing these strips, but in Kansas and Missouri, they are still classified as drug paraphernalia.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2021, data from the Kansas Department of Health Environment shows a 54% increase in total drug overdoses across the state. 

Almost half, 44%, of those deaths involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, a 25.8% increase from the year prior, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The number one abuse substance in the world is sugar,” Chad Sabora, vice president of government and public affairs at the Indiana Center for Recovery and director of the MO Network said. “Our views of drug use are so subjective and biased that we have to start offering more comprehensive services on other levels.”

Sabora, who works with harm reduction advocates across the country, including Kansas, said lawmakers need to swiftly remove the negative consequences associated with substance use disorder or else people are going to continue to die. 

He said the longer lawmakers wait to decriminalize the strips, the longer our government loses money and lives.

“They’re demonizing individuals and from a red standpoint about fiscal responsibility, an overdose death costs anything from $10,000 to a million dollars to taxpayers,” Sabora said. “Like me, for example, I was saved by taxpayer Naloxone a long time ago.”

“In my lifetime, since I didn’t die, based on my income, I’m going to pay about $2 million to the federal government. If I would’ve died, it would’ve been a loss in revenue to the government. So, you have the fiscal argument, which is really apathetic and disgusting to pull out but sometimes you have to. It saves everyone in the long run to save lives.”

Many Republican Senators have since expressed opposition to services that support individuals engaging in illegal activity.

“Fentanyl strips don’t save lives,” Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican of Louisburg, said, according to the Kansas Reflector. “Let’s be clear. There are individuals that want fentanyl in the drug that they’ve purchased or acquired.”

Warren argued the strips enable those who use drugs and function as a gateway to free and clean needle programs.

Meanwhile, advocates like Sabora say the fact that we even have to have this discussion is appalling.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have some standard to try to do what we can to make the black market a little bit safer because of the amount of people that are dying and our country is leading the world in overdose deaths,” he said. “We don’t implement evidence-based strategies, instead, we plug morality into our legislature.”

“This is all that this is about, a moral judgment on somebody’s decision.”

Visit PreventOverdoseKS.org for resources, data and information regarding Kansas’ harm reduction and drug prevention efforts. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder and needs help, call Kansas’ SUD hotline at (866) 645-8216 or visit FindTreatment.gov to locate treatment services.

Pharmacies offering naloxone can be found at ktracs.ks.gov/pharmacists/naloxone-dispensing. Under Kansas law, pharmacists can legally distribute naloxone to patients without a prescription.