City Council Legislation Addresses Opioid Epidemic With Push To Decriminalize Fentanyl Test Strips

File:Helena Moreno.png” by Todd Ragusa is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno advanced her legislation to decriminalize fentanyl test strips in New Orleans on Tuesday. 

“Saving lives has got to come first,” explained Council President Helena Moreno. “The opioid epidemic rages on, but fentanyl is a uniquely dangerous and often invisible accelerate to the damage wrought. This simple harm reduction measure helps give our health department and nonprofit advocates an essential tool in preventing overdoses in our community.” 

New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno supports the legislation, emphasizing, “Modifying the City code to allow the legal possession of rapid fentanyl test strips could save the lives of New Orleanians.”

Avegno has wanted to purchase and distribute fentanyl test strips for some time. However, she was barred from doing so by the New Orleans City Code which bans the use and distribution of fentanyl test strips, recognizing them as “drug paraphernalia.” 

Through giving out test strips the New Orleans Health Department would not only prevent fentanyl overdoses by stopping unintentional fentanyl usage but also would gain a platform for community engagement. Medical professionals and advocates who distribute the tests could start discussions with and give educational materials to the individuals using them. 

When fentanyl is taken, it’s normally accidental, because it’s frequently mixed with counterfeit pills, heroin, and cocaine. Fentanyl is so strong, that it’s 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, so accidentally taking it is extremely dangerous. 

One of the leading causes of overdoses in New Orleans is fentanyl-laced drugs. Evidence suggests that many of these overdoses were caused by people unintentionally taking fentanyl because they believed it was a different drug. 

“The era of fentanyl, which is way more potent than heroin, is happening,” East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William “Beau” Clark commented. “People are just going to buy the white powder. They have no idea if it’s heroin, fentanyl, or both.”

Clark’s office has been investigating deaths where people who typically use stimulants end up dying from “massive fentanyl overdoses.” Clark says most of these cases occur because people buy a drug and believe it’s methamphetamine, Xanax, or cocaine. They take a large quantity of it believing it’s a stimulant, and their bodies, with no opioid tolerance, are not prepared. 

According to a study published in the National Library for Medicine, from 2013 to 2018, there was a notable surge in fentanyl toxicity deaths in Jefferson Parish. The study found that “A slow increase in fentanyl-related deaths during the first 3 years of the study period was followed by a near doubling of cases in 2016, a tripling of cases in 2017, and a 6-fold increase in incidence in 2018.” In 2013 there were only 6 fentanyl-related deaths in Jefferson Parish, a number that increased to 78 by 2018. 

From 2019 to 2020 overdose deaths increased by 50% in Jefferson Parish, from 154 to 233, with the number of fentanyl deaths more than doubling. 

These statistics from Jefferson Parish reflect the larger fentanyl crisis in Louisiana. A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that “Nearly 40% of the 1,140 reported drug overdose deaths in Louisiana involved opioids in 2018—a total of 444 fatalities.” The number of opioid-involved deaths in Louisiana was 184% times higher in 2018 than in 2012, an increase that reflects the impact of heroin and fentanyl infiltrating the state’s drug markets. 

From July 2019 to July 2020, the number of drug overdose deaths rose in Louisiana more than any other state in the US. Around 1,720 Louisianans died from overdoses during this period, which is 53% more drug overdose deaths than Louisiana had from July 2018 to July 2019. These numbers were indubitably impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and a decade-long increase in overdose deaths that has been driven by more fentanyl usage in the state. 

If the legislation to decriminalize fentanyl test strips is approved by the full Council then it will pave the way for the New Orleans Health Department and advocates to purchase and distribute tests to New Orleans’s most vulnerable communities. 

However, while the tests will be decriminalized in the city, they are still technically illegal in Louisiana. For the possession, delivery, or sale of fentanyl test strips the punishment is a “$300 fine or less and 15-day imprisonment or less.” Because of this, decriminalizing fentanyl test strips will occur in a similar way to decriminalizing marijuana in the city, with no criminal punishment being levied on people who break the state law. 

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