SHAWNEE, Kan. — Fentanyl-testing strips will be decriminalized in Kansas starting July 1.
Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill during a ceremony Thursday in Shawnee with legislators and family members of people who have overdosed on fentanyl by her side amid the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis.
“Today’s a great day,” said Shawnee resident Libby Davis, whose son Cooper died from a fentanyl poisoning in 2021. “It's a good feeling. I think that this is one of the first steps for Kansas to really work towards fighting this battle against illicit fentanyl and to saving lives."
Davis, who worked with the KSHB 41 I-Team on several stories about the opioid crisis since Cooper's death, was among those at the ceremony as Kelly signed the bill.
She and her husband, Randy, have devoted themselves to raising awareness as a way to honor Cooper’s memory. National Fentanyl Awareness Day was Tuesday.
"Moving forward, it's definitely a tool that will save lives,” Davis said.
She said they didn’t know about the fentanyl crisis until a month after Cooper’s death, but they believe fentanyl-testing strips could have been a tool to save his life.
Until the legislature passed Senate Bill 174, fentanyl-testing strips were considered illegal drug paraphernalia under Kansas law. The bill legalizes the strips, which can be used to detect the presence of fentanyl in other substances.
Even small amounts of fentanyl can be deadly, and the drug is often mixed in with other narcotics or used in counterfeit prescription pills.
“Overdoses caused by fentanyl have devastated communities across Kansas and the nation,” Kelly said in a statement from her office. “By decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, we are providing the resources needed to combat the opioid and fentanyl epidemic so that families and loved ones no longer have to feel the pain of a preventable death.”
Legislation to decriminalize fentanyl-testing strips in Kansas was introduced in 2021 and passed the House in 2022 before it stalled in the Senate.
Kelly credited Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from the Wichita area, and Rep. Jason Probst, a Democrat from Hutchinson, for helping push the bill across the finish line in 2023.
“I was very concerned (it wouldn’t pass), because this isn't the first time we've tried to do this,” Kelly said. “I am very appreciative, particularly from Representative Owens and Representative Probst, for sticking with this and working as hard as they did to get this through."
Mental-health professionals were among the law’s biggest supporters.
"This is a game changer for the prevention, treatment, and recovery communities,” Kevin Kufeldt, the director of addiction and residential services for Johnson County Mental Health, said at the news conference.
Johnson County Mental Health treats more than 650 adults and children each year. The percentage of youth seeking treatment for opioid-related issues has skyrocketed in recent years — from 7.5% in 2020 to 35% last year.
“This year we're sitting at about 55% of the youth coming into our residential program having an opioid-use disorder, so the numbers continue to rise,” Kufeldt said. “This flood of fentanyl is coming into our state, so we're doing everything in our power to combat this epidemic."
Drug-overdose deaths more than doubled from 2015 (52,404) to 2021 (106,699), according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 70,600 of those deaths, which set a disturbing record, were opioid-related.
“The more we can talk about it, the more people will become informed and hopefully learn more about how it can indeed affect any family in the country,” Davis said. “I think this is a great first step in helping prevent fentanyl overdoses and poisonings and there's still a lot of work to be done, but this is a great start."
“It doesn't mean that we're going to stop fighting because those of us, especially those of us who have been directly impacted by illicit fentanyl, we're going to keep pushing. We're going to keep fighting."
The family also hosted a 5K in Cooper’s memory last summer to raise awareness of the fentanyl crisis. They plan to host the race again this summer on June 17.
Senate Bill 184 also increases criminal penalties for manufacturing or distributing fentanyl and for committing battery against a health-care provider.
Kansas provides a multitude of resources to combat substance abuse in the state.