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Ohio legislators consider bill to decriminalize fentanyl test strips

Fentanyl test strips provided for free during a Save a Life Day event in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Sept. 8, 2022.
David Smith
Reporting on Addiction
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid developed to treat pain in cancer patients, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Ohio legislators are considering legislation that would decriminalize a test that can detect fentanyl in drugs — a move advocates say could save lives.

Fentanyl test strips allow drug users to easily test to see if a substance contains traces of fentanyl — a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid that increases the risk of overdose.

Currently in Ohio, the tests are considered drug paraphernalia and are illegal.

That dissuades some organizations that work with people with addiction from purchasing and distributing them for fear possessing them could put a vulnerable person in legal trouble, advocates say.

“We have an order in to purchase these. We want to make sure we're doing the right thing in the community by providing these out there and somebody is not going to get arrested for having them either," said Dan Haight, president and CEO of The LCADA Way, a Lorain non-profit that works with people dealing with addiction.

House Bill 456 includes language that carves out an exception for fentanyl test strips — therefore decriminalizing their possession or use to determine the presence of fentanyl or a fentanyl-related compound.

The bill received its third hearing in the House criminal justice committee on Tuesday.

In 2020, more than 5,200 people died of drug overdoses in Ohio, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The state's mortality rate was the fourth highest in the nation that year when more than 47 people per 100,000 died of drug overdoses.

In Cuyahoga County, drug overdose deaths, including those caused by fentanyl, increased by about 82% in 2016 over the year before and have remained high since, according to October's Heroin & Fentanyl Cocaine Related Death Report by the county medical examiner's office.

Kristin Boggs, a Democrat representing Ohio’s 18th house district that includes parts of Columbus, is the sponsor of H.B. 456. She said a college student from her district recently died from a fentanyl overdose, after taking what he thought was an herbal drug.

"I would be very concerned that anything — and I mean anything — [not purchased directly from a pharmacy] could be potentially laced with fentanyl," she said.

Boggs said she's never heard of a case where someone was arrested for possessing fentanyl strips alone, but said the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association agrees the tests should be decriminalized.

Some people criticize the test strips because some drug users may use them to seek out more potent drugs, but their potential to save lives outweighs possible nefarious uses, said Haight.

“It's the same concept of why is the health department putting out condoms, protecting people from HIV and other things?" he said. "This is the same sort of thing. We're helping protect the community from overdose.”

Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said the tests save lives.

I've talked to individuals in our harm reduction programs that will say, 'I tested my drug. I didn't use it because it had fentanyl in it,'" she said.

She said the fentanyl test strips are available at Summit County clinics and can be found at most harm reduction programs.

Advocates said they believe H.B. 456 will pass if it makes it through the lame-duck legislative session before it ends later this month.

Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP), or visit findtreatment.gov

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.
Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.