Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
Thousands of Ohioans die every year from overdosing on drugs, and a new bill in the House is trying to save some of those lives.
House Bill 456 would decriminalize fentanyl drug testing strips.
Ohio has been referred to as “ground zero” for the opioid epidemic. For at least the past decade, Ohio ranks in the top five in the country for drug overdose death rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In early May, two Ohio State University students died and another was hospitalized from a drug overdose. One of them was Tiffany Iler, 21, who was from Broadview Heights and graduated from Laurel School.
Columbus police haven’t released the official cause, but they suspect it may be from fentanyl-laced drugs. The Office of Student Life sent out a message after the incident warning students about fake Adderall pills. The message says that some of the fake pills appear to contain fentanyl, which is causing an increase in overdoses and hospitalizations.
Fentanyl, the highly addictive synthetic opioid, is the leading cause of drug-related deaths in Ohio, according to state data.
“For somebody who has no tolerance for something, there’s nothing you can do if you don’t have a life-saving tool,” Thomas Powell, civic engagement organizer for River Valley Organizing, said.
Powell knows the dangers of fentanyl well.
“I was supposed to go to college and play soccer,” he said. “I had scholarships and everything and my whole life crumbled and next thing I knew, I was homeless.”
He had no intention to ever do fentanyl, he said, but it found him.
“I was into stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamine,” the advocate said. “I got a little tiny bump like that, and within 10 seconds, I was done.
There is not one consensus on how much fentanyl will kill you, since every body is different. About 2mg is what the Drug Enforcement Administration considers as a “deadly dose.”
“I died, they pronounced me dead and a rookie EMT was like, ‘I’m going to hit him one more time.'” Powell said. “I came back, thankfully, with that.”
But something clicked in his head the last time he overdosed, he said. That needed to be the end.
He had to watch “most of the people that he went to school with and grew up with” die. That is why he is so passionate about his nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping communities with harm reduction.
“It’s basically giving people who are using the tools they need to survive,” he said.
Free fentanyl drug testing strips have become more common for many Ohio cities. Health departments and organizations all across the state have been providing these resources.
Even though the strips are promoted by city officials, they could get you in trouble.
“Fentanyl drug testing strips are considered drug paraphernalia and it is illegal for someone to be in possession of them,” state Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Columbus Democrat, said.
If someone possesses or uses the strips, they could be charged with a fourth degree misdemeanor, according to current state law. That could be up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $250.
Boggs, with bipartisan support, introduced H.B. 456, decriminalizing the test strips.
In her testimony Friday, she went off script. She had written her testimony a few weeks prior to the OSU overdoses.
“Many of you may know that Ohio State recently had a great loss when two university students who had finished with their finals, were about to go into graduation weekend, ended up overdosing what we believe was on fentanyl from Adderall that they had purchased on the streets,” the Democrat said. “This problem is certainly something that I think we all appreciate is significant and needs to be addressed and we believe that by decriminalizing these fentanyl testing strips, it’s creating one more tool, one more avenue that could potentially result in somebody avoiding an overdose that is unattended because they are unaware of what substances are in the drugs that they are using.”
News 5 reached out to numerous lawmakers and more than 10 different groups and found that all supported decriminalizing the test strips, including the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
No one has publicly come out against the bill, so far, but a common argument Powell hears is that this will just encourage people to use.
“Everybody’s going to look at you like you’re less than a person,” he said. “It sucks, but most people just need a hand.
“Nobody gets in that position if everything is okay, you know?”
Boggs brought up a 2018 study conducted by Johns Hopkins in which 335 people who use drugs were asked whether they would change their behavior if they were able to detect fentanyl in their drugs. About 70% of respondents said they would alter their behavior, the study showed.
“My brother would still be here today if he had access to an 80-cent-tester,” he said. “Narcan saves lives, fentanyl test strips save lives, sterile supplies save lives and stigma kills.”
This bill would help keep Ohioans safe, and lessen the stigma around addiction, he said.
“It’s still going to be the world we live in, but hopefully we’ll just be a little bit safer and we’ll lose a couple less loved ones,” he added.
The public should be able to give testimony in favor or against the bill in the coming weeks.
Harm reduction resources
If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
The Never Use Alone Hotline is available at 1-800-484-3731.
If you’re ready for help, call the 24-hour Addiction/Mental Health Crisis Hotline at 216-623-6888.
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