Florida bill decriminalizing fentanyl test strips sails through Senate with bipartisan support

The Florida Senate unanimously approved a bill that's meant to help prevent fentanyl overdose

click to enlarge Florida Sen. Tina Polsky hugging Democratic colleague Sen. Lori Berman after a bill to decriminalize fentanyl testing equipment passes on March 29, 2023. - The Florida Channel
The Florida Channel
Florida Sen. Tina Polsky hugging Democratic colleague Sen. Lori Berman after a bill to decriminalize fentanyl testing equipment passes on March 29, 2023.

Amid what’s become a deeply partisan legislative session, Florida senators on Wednesday demonstrated rare bipartisan support for a bill that would decriminalize fentanyl test strips, as part of the state’s ongoing effort to combat Florida’s opioid epidemic and overdose crisis.

“The U.S. drug overdose epidemic continues to worsen as the number of deaths grew by nearly 15% in 2021 — a grand total fueled by a 23% rise in the number of deaths linked to fentanyl,” Sen. Tina Polsky (D-Boca Raton), the bill sponsor, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“Fentanyl test strips are simple, inexpensive strips of paper that save lives by detecting the presence of deadly fentanyl in any drug,” Polsky said, “be it pills, powders or injectables, thus reducing the incidence of overdose.”

Polsky’s bill (SB 164) would amend Florida’s decades-old drug statutes, which technically criminalize possession of drug testing equipment. Under state law, drug testing equipment, including fentanyl test strips, are classified as a form of “drug paraphernalia.”

Federal agencies such as the CDC and President Biden, however, have endorsed the use of testing strips as a harm reduction measure, recognizing it as one of many tools that can immediately help to save lives. 

Fentanyl, a powerful opioid drug that’s legally prescribed as a painkiller, is upwards of 50 times stronger than heroin, and 100 times stronger than morphine.

In the majority of cases, however, illicitly manufactured forms of the drug taken alone or laced into other drugs have been driving Florida’s fatal overdose crisis, along with other dangerous substances that have entered the illicit drug market, such as xylazine (or “tranq”).

To combat this, a number of states over the last couple of years have rapidly moved to legalize or decriminalize drug testing equipment such as test strips that are capable of detecting the presence of fentanyl in drugs.

Both Republican and Democratic state have adopted measures to ensure that  criminalization isn’t a barrier to the use of testing strips — which can be bought online through sellers like Amazon or DanceSafe.

Last year, a similar effort to decriminalize fentanyl test strips in Florida failed at the last minute, with critics arguing the move would promote drug use.

That version, however, contained language that was broader than this year’s, however.

Instead of moving to decriminalize all drug testing equipment, Polsky’s bill specifically only decriminalizes narcotic drug testing equipment that can be used to test for fentanyl and its analogs.

Prior to its vote on the Senate floor yesterday, Polsky also filed an amendment that even further narrowed its scope, by specifying that the bill would not apply to testing equipment “that can measure or determine the quantity, weight, or potency of a controlled substance.”

That amendment, and the bill at large, was welcomed with bipartisan support.

“I think it’s an excellent add for this so that it is not going to be used by those who have nefarious purposes to determine the weight and the content of their fentanyl as a bragging right, but merely the presence of whether or not it exists,” said Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur.

There’s not any evidence to suggest that people who use or sell drugs have taken advantage of test strip decriminalization measures for “nefarious purposes,” but OK.

Just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, the bill was unanimously approved by Florida senators, with just one (Sen. Erin Grall, R-Fort Pierce) absent for the vote. A similar House version (HB 165) is still making its way through its respective chamber.

Separately, GOP-sponsored legislation that’d enhance criminal penalties for illicit fentanyl sale, possession, and distribution is also making its way through the state legislature.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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