Kentucky lawmakers are considering House Bill 353, which would allow addiction treatment programs to distribute fentanyl test strips. These test strips help drug users determine if the substances they are consuming, such as heroin or opioids, have been mixed with fentanyl, which has caused thousands of overdoses. The legislation comes with bipartisan sponsorship to address the alarming rate of drug overdose deaths in Kentucky. Fentanyl contributed to nearly 73% of these deaths in 2021, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. A key component of the bill gives protections to addiction treatment programs who engage in certain harm reduction tactics.
Letting Rehab Programs Distribute Fentanyl Test Strips
Rep. Kim Moser (R-Taylor Mill) and Rep. Rachel Roberts (D-Newport) sponsored the proposal. It adds a section to the existing law to exclude fentanyl test strips and other equipment from being considered drug paraphernalia. The measure aims to make harm reduction efforts more accessible by allowing addiction treatment organizations, such as Volunteers of America Mid-States, to distribute fentanyl test strips without fear of legal repercussions.
Jennifer Hancock, the president and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States, emphasized the importance of this legislation in enabling her organization to provide individuals with the ability to test their drugs for deadly substances before using them.
Currently, Landmark Recovery of Louisville doesn’t distribute fentanyl test strips.
Rep. Roberts also underscored the urgency of this measure. He described it as a necessary tool for fatal overdose prevention. He also said it was a guide for Kentuckians who need to navigate toward treatment.
“We cannot get folks into recovery if they die of an overdose. Clarifying the paraphernalia language to allow for fentanyl testing strips is a tool to help prevent overdose deaths and guide Kentuckians in need to treatment.”
Opposition to Harm Reduction
In some parts of the state, police have considered fentanyl test strips to be illegal drug paraphernalia according to James Thacker. He’s the program manager for the harm reduction initiative at the University of Kentucky. He told Kaiser Health News back in June 2022 that test strips were getting people in trouble no differently than pipes or needles might.
Just under 250 miles south of Louisville, Ky., residents of Knoxville, Tenn. have seen fentanyl test strips disseminated also. Knoxville’s Metro Drug Coalition (MDC) started distributing them earlier this year.
However, even Karen Pershing, executive director of the MDC has disparaged investment in harm reduction practices. She maintains that money would be better spent on primary prevention, which she pitted against harm reduction, albeit more expensive in some cases.
Primary prevention is a set of programs intended to preempt substance abuse initiation in kids. Harm reduction would theoretically become unnecessary if primary prevention tactics were more effective. She speaks of harm reduction as an inferior but more available option.
Opposition has arisen for harm reduction programs nationwide in fact. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act included a $30 million grant program for harm reduction organizations. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), however, criticized the grant program in a 2021 tweet saying it would fund “crack pipes for all.”
ACLU Lobbying for Harm Reduction in Kentucky
Kentucky Smart on Crime is a coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (ACLU-Ky). The ACLU-Ky has thrown its weight behind the proposal. It’s one of several organizations that work on criminal justice reform and who have embraced the bill.
Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist at ACLU-Ky, explained that the amendment would help harm reduction centers and other entities distribute fentanyl testing strips. Ideally, this would also save lives.
“What we’re having is that harm reduction centers and other places that want to give out fentanyl testing strips know that they fit the definition of the statute and so sometimes they’re leery of handing them out,” said Njuguna.
The bill also mandates a state-run, fentanyl education and awareness campaign be organized. The House Judiciary committee voted on the bill on March 1.
Fentanyl Test Strips Are Already Being Disseminated
The rise of fentanyl overdoses ranks as a top priority for the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition (KyHRC). In 2020, fentanyl contributed to 71% of fatal overdoses in the state. In 2021, KyHRC launched an innovative program to distribute fentanyl test strips by mail from its headquarters in Louisville.
KyHRC recognizes that many substance abusers don’t overdose by deliberately pushing their limits. Rather, the drugs they use have been laced with fentanyl, and they’re unaware.
To combat that, KyHRC has been equipping users with the necessary tools to use drugs safely. Fentanyl test strips premiered as a key tactic for doing so. It lets users test their drugs to see if fentanyl’s present. If it is, they can either decide not to use or adjust their dosage accordingly.
Erica Williams-Archie, executive administrator at KyHRC, emphasized the importance of this program at the time. Fentanyl’s been found in a wide range of drugs, including cocaine and meth. Williams-Archie explained that knowing whether fentanyl’s present or not can be a matter of life or death.
KyHRC offers an online form for Kentuckians to request fentanyl test strips and naloxone. The latter is a synthetic drug that blocks opiate receptors in the nervous system.
Save Yourself — Don’t Risk It
You may not keep surviving your substance abuse habits even with the help of harm reduction. If you’re using cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or any of the drugs commonly laced with fentanyl nowadays, you’re playing with huge risk.
The hardest part of saving yourself is seeking help. In Kentucky, you’re able to just call an addiction specialist over the phone at 502-309-2675. They can arrange for free transportation from wherever you are to the nearest addiction treatment location. Call now to set up on-site residential treatment, complete with medical detox.
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