My personal crusade to make fentanyl testing strips legal

Photo via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I won’t even try to put into words what it feels like to lose a child, because words fail. The English language fails — and I say that as an English teacher whose job is basically to analyze words and rhetoric. Needless to say, I am part of a club now that no parent ever wants to join. In May, I lost my youngest son.

By all accounts, my son did not have a drug problem, and I feel certain about that because I had the terrible task of sorting through all of his belongings — a task that no parent should ever have to endure. But something drug-related did happen, and he died because of it; he died from a fentanyl overdose after taking a fentanyl-laced drug, and that is a fact I am still struggling to understand — and accept.

Yet, like others who have found paths forward, I am determined to begin working to reduce these tragedies.

Our state is facing an opioid crisis; we have lost 8,140 lives since June of 2017, and fentanyl-laced drugs are a significant factor in that crisis. Increasing awareness of the prevalence of what the police call “counterfeit drugs,” illegal drugs that are “fake,” is critical, and I want to be part of that awareness campaign. At their best, counterfeit drugs are ineffective; at their worst, they are deadly. The Drug Enforcement Administration defines fentanyl as a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. It can be added to other drugs to increase their potency, and the danger is that it can slow the respiratory system and lower blood pressure.

That is what happened to my son. And that is what has happened to too many other young people in Arizona. Young lives cut short and families left wondering why.

In 2017, Gov. Doug Ducey issued a Declaration of Emergency that included five provisions to combat the opioid crisis. In 2018, the Arizona State Legislature passed an omnibus bill (S.B. 1001) that appropriated money to the newly-formed Substance Abuse Disorder Fund, enacted The Good Samaritan Law, and limited access to opioids through our healthcare systems—among many other provisions.

These were necessary and positive steps in our state’s battle against the opioid crisis.

As a newly elected state senator, I’m filing a bill this week that would take our state one more step in the right direction.  This bill has the potential to save lives by taking one sentence that deals with “testing” out from under the heading of “drug paraphernalia,” thereby making fentanyl testing strips legal. Currently, these life-saving testing strips, that look like thin strips of paper a few inches long, are illegal, even though they can detect the presence of fentanyl, when mixed with water and a tiny amount of another drug.

Fentanyl testing strips are one more weapon we can use to fight this broader war against the opioid crisis. In some states, testing strips are already legal, and the research suggests that they change drug-users’ behavior — and thus save lives. I implore the governor and my fellow legislators to join me in pushing for this life-saving legislation.

I don’t know if a fentanyl testing strip might have saved my son’s life, but I do know that we have a chance to save other lives and other families from experiencing the soul-crushing grief that I know too well.

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Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix

Sen. Christine Marsh is a Democrat from Legislative District 28, which includes parts of north-central Phoenix and Paradise Valley. She was first elected to the Senate in 2020.