By Aara Ramesh
On May 18, Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a bill that excludes narcotic drug testing products from an existing law that classifies them as illegal drug paraphernalia. The particular target of this action are fentanyl test strips (FTS), which are able to determine whether a product contains fentanyl or one of its analogs.
The bill was introduced in the state senate on Jan 28, which unanimously approved it on Feb 23. On May 13, it passed the house in a 48–11 vote, sending it to the governor to be signed. The measure was championed by freshman Democrat Senator Christine Marsh, whose 25-year-old son Landon accidentally overdosed on a fentanyl-laced pill in May 2020. In his comments, Gov. Ducey thanked Sen. Marsh, and said that although the preference is for people suffering drug additions to seek professional treatment, this is a step forward in efforts to prevent accidental overdoses.
Fentanyl is an extremely strong and potentially lethal synthetic opioid used for treating severe pain. It is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and just 2 mg of fentanyl is enough to kill someone; for reference, a lethal dose of heroin is generally 75–375 mg. The legal use of fentanyl is highly regulated but most overdoses and deaths related to this drug result from illicitly manufactured versions that are then mixed or cut with other drugs such as heroin and/or cocaine, the CDC says.
By determining whether drugs have been cut with fentanyl or its analogs, FTS can help mitigate the risk of accidental overdoses. Sen. Marsh says that FTS are potentially life saving and its legalization will help make sure that people — particularly teens and young adults — don’t inadvertently take drugs that are laced with fatal doses of fentanyl.
Previously, simply possessing FTS in Arizona could lead to a suspect facing serious drug charges. In early April 2021, the CDC announced that states would now be allowed to use federal funds to buy FTS.
Studies have shown that FTS, which are low-tech and low-cost, are highly effective and accurate in detecting the tracest amounts of fentanyl, even though they have their limits. Drug users have indicated that they were concerned about their drugs being laced with fentanyl, and also agreed that being able to check their drugs would make them ”feel better” about protecting themselves from overdoses.
The U.S. has been suffering a crippling opioid epidemic for several years now. According to the NIH, drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids rose to 17,029 in 2017 from 3,442 in 1999. In particular, there has been a staggering rise in the number of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (a category that specifically includes fentanyl and its analogs), which increased 12 times between 2013 and 2019. The CDC says that “more than 36,000 people died from overdoses involving synthetic opioids in 2019.” It also noted that, according to provisional data, in the 12 months ending August 2020, there were around 88,000 drug overdose deaths — the highest-ever figure in any recorded 12-month period.
In a similar vein, Arizona has also seen an uptick in opioid abuse. In June 2017, Gov. Ducey declared an opioid emergency, after the number of drug-related deaths in the state increased 74% between 2012 and 2017. According to the Arizona Department of Public Health, opioid deaths increased from 1,359 in 2019 to 1,960 in 2020. Further, 2018 data showed that 18% of “verified opioid overdoses” were caused by fentanyl.
Last year, Landon Marsh took a Percocet pill, not knowing it was laced with fentanyl, in a moment of “stupidity” with a childhood friend, according to Sen. Marsh. She added that her son was not an addict. He had just gotten married and was in the process of getting a mechanical engineering degree. Sen. Marsh says Landon was just experimenting with drugs, as teens and young adults tend to do, and that in his case, fentanyl was “nefariously” added into the pill. His death led Sen. Marsh to prioritize opioid abuse in her agenda — something she was already familiar with, having seen the effects of drug abuse in her students during her long career as an educator. Gov. Ducey signed the bill into law on the one-year anniversary of Landon’s death.