By MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Some Alabama lawmakers are trying to take an unconventional approach to combating the opioid crisis: making it legal for people to test their drugs for fentanyl.
Senate Bill 168, sponsored by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, and House Bill 187 by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, allow people to possess fentanyl testing strips. Current state law considers the strips drug paraphernalia and illegal.
“The No. 1 reason for deaths due to overdoses is the presence of fentanyl and most of the time the drug user doesn’t know they’re using fentanyl,” McClendon said Wednesday in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security committee meeting.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration describes fentanyl as an opioid that’s often added to illegally sold drugs, especially heroin, in order to increase their potency. Fentanyl is extremely deadly even in small quantities.
According to Alabama Department of Public Health statistics provided to Alabama Daily News, 1,027 Alabamians died from overdoses in 2020, and 614 of those involved the use of opioids.
More than half of the Alabama residents that died from overdoses were between the ages 30 and 49.
“We go through a lot of trouble to help drug users stay alive when they overdose,” McClendon told Alabama Daily News. Test strips could prevent overdoses, he said.
A lethal dose of heroin is approximately 30 mg, but a lethal dose of fentanyl is approximately 3 mg, according to the Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Counsel, which is in support of this legislation.
The Alabama Department of Mental Health in April of 2021 said illicitly manufactured fentanyl is now known to be present in all street drugs, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and counterfeit prescription pills.
McClendon’s bill was approved earlier this month in the Senate on a 19-5 vote.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, spoke against the bill on the chamber floor.
“I have a fundamental problem with making an illegal activity safer,” Stutts said. “It’s the equivalent of giving bullet-proof vests to bank robbers.”
Proponents argue that testing strips don’t promote illegal activity.
“This doesn’t encourage people to use drugs, but it’s a preventive thing that could save lives,” co-sponsor Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said. She likened the tests to the Naloxone kits carried by first responders to save patients after an overdose.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, is another bill co-sponsor.
“There’s a lot of reasons and ways to punish people for illegal drugs, but why do testing strips need to be in there?” Givhan told Alabama Daily News about the current law. “Why are we stopping them from this testing that could prevent a death?”
Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, is another co-sponsor.
“Obviously, nobody likes drug abuse and drug use in our communities, but the fact is it’s there,” Butler, a retired pharmacist, said. “Death is a distinct possibility with a fentanyl overdose and a test strip may save someone’s life.”
Sen. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, said on the Senate floor that she worried drug dealers would use the strips to prove the quality of the drugs they’re selling.
According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, whose state government legalized the strips in 2019, the strips only test for the presence of fentanyl and not for the quantity of it.
The test strips can be bought online for about $1 each.
McClendon said the Jefferson County Department of Health asked him to carry this bill to reduce the risk of overdose.
Dr. Darlene Traffanstedt, the department’s medical director, said that from 2019 to 2021, overdose deaths in Jefferson County increased by 69.5%. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported that in 2020, 306 overdose deaths occurred in Jefferson County alone.
She said that with the increased presence of fentanyl in a variety of drugs, “there is no better time for people to get into treatment.”
The Jefferson County Department of Health also said that legalizing the strips will not hinder Alabama’s law enforcement’s work in stopping drug trafficking.
Alabama’s State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said several other southern states have recently approved or are considering approving the strips.
“Most of the lawmakers we’ve talked to understand this saves lives without promoting drug use,” Harris said.
A study in Greensboro, North Carolina found that 81% of people who were given access to these tests used them to test drugs before using. The study also found that individuals whose tests indicated a presence of fentanyl were “5 times more likely to change their drug behavior to reduce the risk of overdose.”
“Just because a college kid may take an (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) drug to stay up and study, you shouldn’t condemn them to death,” McClendon said.
The Senate bill now awaits a final vote in the House.
Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.