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Legalize Fentanyl Test Strips, Say Mississippi Lawmakers, Law Enforcement

Closeup of hands using a fentanyl test strip to test drugs
A simple strip of paper can quickly identify the presence of a potentially lethal opioid in drugs. In Mississippi, fentanyl test strips are still banned as drug paraphernalia. A growing consensus among lawmakers and law enforcement could change that. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

A group of Mississippi lawmakers is seeking to legalize fentanyl test strips, a tool used to detect the presence of the synthetic opioid. When added to other drugs, fentanyl can cause lethal overdoses for users who are unaware of its presence.

Earlier this year, Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, sponsored S.B. 2284, which would have specifically excluded “narcotic drug testing products that are used to determine whether a controlled substance contains fentanyl or a fentanyl analog” from Mississippi’s list of controlled drug “paraphernalia.” That bill, and a similar one in the House from Rep. Christopher M. Bell, D-Jackson, died in committee without a full hearing in either chamber.

Official Headshot of Nicole Boyd
Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview that fentanyl test strips could save lives. Photo courtesy Nicole Boyd

Today, Boyd told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview that more people need to understand what the test strip’s purpose was. “I think the bill was a little misunderstood last year. Essentially what we’re doing is just deregulating and decriminalizing this test strip,” she said.

‘You Can Save Their Lives’

Fentanyl is a powerful pharmaceutical that, when used properly and in correct doses, treats chronic pain patients and cancer patients through patches on the skin, but some illicit drug dealers secretly add it to other drugs to make users think they are purchasing more potent versions of other substances. The results have often proved deadly.

Because of the dangers of other substances containing concealed fentanyl, Boyd said, fentanyl test strips can mean the difference between life and death for first time users and long-term addicts alike.

“Say somebody has a Xanax that they don’t get from the pharmacy, and they use this strip,” Boyd explained. “If it shows that it is positive for fentanyl, you literally have saved that person’s life. I think this is also a tool to really help educate our kids, too. When you’re that age, in college, in high school, you feel pretty indestructible. You don’t think that bad things are going to happen to you.”

Something as simple as the bright red line showing the presence of fentanyl may shatter that illusion, she concluded. “By deregulating these strips and putting these in the people’s hands, they will be able to see for themselves that a lot of these drugs they’re getting are laced with fentanyl. You can save their lives, and at the same time, I think people are going to be much more reluctant to take these illicit drugs afterwards.”

Fentanyl contamination is a growing problem nationwide. In recent years, the Mississippi State Department of Health has made note of spiking overdose deaths, in no small part due to the lethality of fentanyl. “During 2020,” a report from this year reads, “there were more overdose deaths involving opioids than any other substance (69%). Alarmingly, deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl accounted for 53% of all overdose deaths.”

More recent Centers for Disease Control data shows Mississippi overdoses peaking in late 2021, a trend that is now declining downwards, although drug-related deaths are still up compared to pre-pandemic years.

Currently, fentanyl test strips are legal in most U.S. states. But in a cluster of southern states, including Mississippi, they remain classified as drug paraphernalia. Alabama most recently legalized the strips this year.

Narcotics Bureau Supports Change

A growing consensus supports the legalization of fentanyl test strips, including some key figures in law enforcement. “This can be a crime fighting tool,” Boyd said. If people are empowered to be able to test their drugs,” she explained, dealers with tainted supplies can be more readily identified.

Colonel Steven Maxwell, Director of Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, told a joint Drug Policy Committee hearing yesterday that his agency backed the change.

Official headshot of Col. Steven Maxwell, Director of Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics
Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director Steven Maxwell spoke up at a legislative committee hearing yesterday that his agency supported the availability of fentanyl test strips. Courtesy Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics

“The Bureau of Narcotics is in support of making fentanyl test strips available for Mississippians who are battling substance use disorders,” he said. “Families in Mississippi need all of the options available to them as they deal with drug addiction to prevent the next drug overdose. People who are addicted to drugs, they’re taking drugs to escape or to get high, they don’t want to die.”

Other members of the Senate Drug Policy committee, where Boyd’s bill died previously, shared opinions ranging from cautious to optimistic, though none who spoke to the Mississippi Free Press outright rejected the idea.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, the chairman of the Mississippi Senate Drug Policy Committee, said in an interview today that he is willing to consider revoking the ban.

“Well, I’d have to look at the information on it,” he said. “But I’m open minded about it. Fentanyl is coming in and really killing a lot of people.”

Senator Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who sits on the same committee, was broadly supportive of the prospect. “I think it’s always better to have more knowledge than less,” he told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview. “I can’t see why they’d be banned.”

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