House committee approves bill to decriminalize fentanyl test strips

Jan. 18—JACKSON — A House committee on Wednesday voted to advance legislation that would decriminalize testing products that detect the presence of the illegal narcotic fentanyl.

House Drug Policy Chairman Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, told the Daily Journal that the Legislature is not encouraging drug use with the legislation, but it wants to give people who do use illegal narcotics tools to stay safe until they receive long-term help.

"We're just trying to prevent a mistake from becoming a fatal mistake," Yancey said.

Mississippi law currently considers fentanyl testing products such as test strips or testing wipes "drug paraphernalia," and if someone is convicted possessing these products, they could face up to six months in jail.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that's about 50 times more lethal than heroin, and the drug has pushed overdoses to new highs in America. Delivering test strips to people is part of a strategy known as "harm reduction" that gives appropriate products to drug users to prevent accidental overdoses.

The concept for a test strip is simple: If someone is about to take an illicit drug, they can dip a test strip into drug residue dissolved in water. With information from the test, a person can take steps to reduce their risk of dying from an overdose.

Dr. Daniel Edney, Mississippi's state health officer, previously told the Daily Journal that he wants people who use drugs to seek professional help to end their addiction, but they also need "harm reduction" tools to help them in the short-term.

"The test strips are not going to encourage people to use drugs," Edney said.

Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, authored the bill, and he told the Daily Journal he was thankful that Yancey took the bill seriously and advanced it out of the committee. The Hinds County lawmaker said he believed the testing trips were like driving with a seat belt.

"We love having seat belts in a car to keep us safe," Bell said. "Seat belts don't encourage bad driving, but they're there to protect us in case we make a mistake."

Yancey said he did not know when he would bring the bill before the full House chamber for consideration, but he would do so "quickly." Lawmakers have until Feb. 9 to pass bills out of the entire chamber.