Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl. (Photo by Drew Angerer | Getty Images)
A proposal to legalize fentanyl testing strips stirred strong emotions during the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety hearing Thursday. Currently in the state of Wisconsin, possessing or distributing fentanyl testing strips can lead to a felony charge. Since fentanyl is the driving factor behind a surge in overdose deaths across the state, the Legislature is considering new options.
Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) stressed that legalizing fentanyl testing strips could save lives. “A study was done in 2018 where 81 young adults who reported using illicit drugs in the last 30 days were provided testing strips,” said Wanggaard, who chairs the committee. “Of those, 81 of them received one positive result. Participants that received a positive result reported that they would be less likely to engage in risky behavior.”
Overdose and drug treatment are pressing issues throughout the state. In 2020, Milwaukee County saw 544 drug-related deaths. A large percentage of those deaths involve fentanyl or its analogs, which are adulterating a large chunk of the drug supply. Treatment experts and medical examiners are particularly disturbed by deaths occurring from drugs which are less lethal without fentanyl. Things like cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, and other substances are adulterated with fentanyl in the black market. Milwaukee’s 2020 drug overdose death count set a new record, breaking the previous record which was set the year before. The 2021 count is expected to be even higher. The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office is still analyzing some of the deaths from last year.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said that communities have “been given a front row seat to observe the devastating impact” of drug abuse and overdose deaths. “Fentanyl serves as a jack of all trades in the drug game,” said Taylor. She highlighted that it’s classified as a schedule 2 prescription drug, considered less serious than cannabis. Even black market cannabis is being found to contain trace amounts of fentanyl. “It’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine,” said Taylor, noting that the drug is obtained by diverting it from legitimate medical uses. Discarded fentanyl patches, for example, can still contain significant amounts of the drug. Fentanyl is versatile, and can be produced both for medical purposes and illicitly.
Other legislators including Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona) also spoke in favor of the bill. Some legislators, however, questioned whether the strips could be used by users who are actually seeking fentanyl. Ortiz-Velez stressed the fact that some people overdose from fentanyl after being sold fake prescription pills, and said testing strips are a needed tool. “Just recently, I received a call that two university students passed away last week from taking Adderall pills that they obtained on the campus,” she said. “In many places where you have testing strips, that they’re being implemented, people are using them to make sure the substance they are using does not contain fentanyl. This is really a harm reduction tool.” James called the legislation, “a matter of life and death.”
Others who spoke in favor of the bill included the family members of people who’ve died of overdose and representatives of the Milwaukee police union. Alexander Ayala, vice president of the Milwaukee Police Association, said overdose investigations can take up a lot of time and resources for the department. Patrick Reilly, a Wauwatosa resident who is in recovery and has been sober since 2009, underscored the importance of acceptance and harm reduction. Today, he manages medication-assisted treatment programs.
“Any pathway to recovery is recovery,” said Reilly. “So anyone that is actively consuming substances but is using the needle exchange program, in my mind, they’re in recovery. They’re making positive change.” Rather than worrying about how drug dealers will react to legalizing testing strips, Reilly counters that the real opposition is the idea that “it’s a ‘them’ problem.” He added that, “it’s a drug addict problem. Where we remove the humanity of it.” Reilly says he interacts with about 200 people per day who struggle with substance abuse. In his 10 years in the field, he’s known about 300 people who’ve died. “I don’t count anymore,” Reilly confessed.
Reilly, like many treatment specialists, was surprised to learn that distributing testing strips is a felony. He said he’s prepared to continue to defy the law as long as the strips remain illegal. “I think that denying folks resources for harm reduction tells them that conforming to your values is more important than their life,” said Reilly. He appealed to the committee to “make it legal to protect people’s lives.”
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