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Changing policy, saving lives

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after appearing in publications statewide.

No experience of working in public policy is more rewarding than knowing lives will be saved because policies have been changed.

Legislation moving rapidly through the General Assembly toward becoming law would decriminalize fentanyl testing strips, allowing Kentuckians to determine if drugs they’re about to ingest are laced with deadly fentanyl.

Arguably, nothing this year’s busy legislature does will be more relevant, considering fentanyl is involved in nearly three-fourths of all drug overdoses – of which there were around 6,000 in Kentucky just between 2019 and 2021.

Sydney Romo’s 17-year-old nephew, Parker Rion of Shelby County, never imagined a single pill he took one night would be laced with fentanyl and cruelly rob his young life.

“The night he died, he thought he would take this little tiny pill to go to sleep, and get up and go to school the next day,” Romo testified before the legislative committee considering House Bill 353, which would have allowed Sydney to legally use a strip to check the drug before taking it.

“Had Parker been educated about the facts of fentanyl and had testing strips in his possession, that maybe would have changed his opinion on taking that pill that night,” she said in her emotional testimony while seated next to Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, HB 353’s primary sponsor.

Not to be overlooked is the bill’s requirement that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services coordinate an education-and-awareness campaign.

It may be that finding out that just two milligrams of fentanyl – the same size as five grains of salt – are fatal for most people will be as effective as any law.

The campaign will target recreational users, who don’t realize “fentanyl is everywhere,” as Moser told me in my interview on Monday with her on Lexington’s WVLK.

Call the effort a success, she says, “if it just causes that individual to pause and say, ‘you know what? I’m not going to take the chance.’”

Moser said she sees this approach as an example of “getting government out of the way. … If an individual’s trying to save their life and, you know, prevent an overdose, I say ‘let’s let them.’”

Law enforcement’s concerns are understandable.

They worry that relaxing some requirements – such as allowing test strips for a person about to, obviously, consume drugs – may encourage illegal activity.

The same concerns were raised when needle programs were introduced.

“Law enforcement was kind of apprehensive, cause what are we saying, we’re saying it’s OK to use,” Frankfort Policy Chief Dustin Bowman told WLKY-TV about offering clean needles to drug users.

Sound policy weighs competing interests and is laced with common sense.

And that’s how law enforcement – to its great credit –  is approaching this issue.

Chief Bowman, who attended the recent committee hearing considering decriminalizing fentanyl testing strips, says apprehension about encouraging illegality with a needle program was tempered by the fact that “truly we were seeing people get sick, spread diseases, die from the uses. So, you have to change your way of thinking if your true dedication is to community.”

And, we may add, to commonwealth and country, where fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18-45.

The competing interests involved are, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Commonsense says you have to save life before you can educate it or eradicate bad things from it.

Law enforcement, policymakers and groups across the spectrum have coalesced to move policies decriminalizing fentanyl strips down the field – not only with HB 353 here in Kentucky but also in other states representing different regions of the country like  Arizona, North Carolina, Delaware and Tennessee.

Listening to Romo’s touching testimony about her young nephew, I have a regret that frequently accompanies such policies finally succeeding: Why didn’t we do this sooner?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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