Opinion Editorial by Jennifer Hancock, President & CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-states
Test strips and a robust education and awareness campaign will bring down numbers
“We’ve never seen one drug this prevalent in the toxicology reports of overdose fatalities.” Those were the words of Van Ingram executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
A record high 2,250 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2021, a 14.5% increase compared with the year prior. Fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, was involved in nearly 73% of overdose deaths.
Thankfully, members of the Kentucky General Assembly are taking action to stop the fatalities. Health Services Committee Chairwoman Kim Moser has put forward a simple, commonsense proposal in House Bill 353. It would instruct the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, in coordination with the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, to conduct a fentanyl education and awareness campaign, as well as join the growing number of states that have legalized fentanyl test strips.
The current state of the law around test strips has dissuaded public agencies and groups involved in the substance use disorder recovery space from purchasing and distributing strips for fear doing so would land them in legal jeopardy.
The availability of tests is particularly important because Fentanyl is often laced into fake pills. Unwitting individuals may think they are ingesting one substance and unaware that it also contains fentanyl. Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, recently told the Wall Street Journal, “The dangers of fentanyl are heightened for non-opioid users. People aren’t expecting opioids. They might have little to no opioid tolerance. And they might have no way of knowing.”
That was the case for 17-year-old Parker Rion of Shelby County. His aunt, Sydney Romo, testified in support of HB 353 so other families never experience what they went through. "The night he died, he thought he would take this little tiny pill to go to sleep, and get up and go to school the next day," she told the House Judiciary Committee. "Had Parker been educated about the facts of fentanyl and had testing strips in his possession, that maybe would have changed his opinion on taking that pill that night," continued Romo.
Fentanyl test strips are also a tool to protect our first responders. Each time a police officer or EMS worker responds to the scene of a fentanyl overdose, there is risk of exposure. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. As little as 2mg (comparable in size to 5 grains of salt) can trigger a negative health event, including overdose. For first responders, secondary exposure can happen via skin contact, inhalation, or contact with a mucous membrane (eyes, nose).
With police departments and other emergency responders already carrying and administering NARCAN, a medicine used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose emergency, it makes sense to prevent these overdoses on the front end. That’s part of the reason why the bill is garnering widespread support, including from the Attorney General’s office, the Chiefs of Police Association, the Commonwealth Attorneys Association, and the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition.
Fentanyl is too deadly to leave it to chance. Kentucky lawmakers can save lives by passing HB 353.
Jennifer Hancock is President & CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-states, a nationally recognized organization providing substance use disorder recovery services throughout Kentucky.