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Legalized syringe exchanges, fentanyl test strips could help combat overdose deaths

Community health leaders say two new laws could help round out Arizona’s efforts to combat overdose deaths, which are on the rise even after a bipartisan effort to pass the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act in 2018.

The Arizona Agenda reported that daily overdose deaths have doubled since Gov. Doug Ducey signed the act into law. That effort focused primarily on opioid prescriptions, but the latest laws address an area that Haley Coles, executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works, said people don’t often like to see: illicit drug use.

Senate Bill 1250 legalized syringe exchange programs, something lawmakers balked at in 2018. Sen. Nancy Barto, a Phoenix Republican who sponsored the bill, counted herself among those skeptical of such programs.

“When I first heard about the syringe prevention programs, it made me very uncomfortable,” Barto said. “Giving syringes to people who are breaking the law, by using illicit drugs just seems counterintuitive.”

Barto said she was convinced by Coles and others who shared data proving the programs work and demonstrating the broader benefits to surrounding communities.

Senate Bill 1486 legalized fentanyl test strips, which can identify the synthetic opioid in unregulated drugs. The bill was personal to Sen. Christine Marsh, a Phoenix Democrat whose son died from an overdose after mistakenly taking a counterfeit medication laced with the fentanyl.

“At their best counterfeit drugs like this are ineffective, but at their worst they are deadly as was the case with my son,” Marsh said.

Both laws took effect on Sept. 29, at a time when the overdose crisis has been compounded by the pandemic and manufacturing issues that have caused a shortage of injectable naloxone, an affordable way to reverse opioid drug overdoses.

Coles said reducing harm among illicit drug users is an important aspect of a broader strategy to combat addiction and overdose deaths -- and without these new laws, those strategies were sorely missed in Arizona.

“Both of these interventions are uniquely harm reduction based and centered around the lives and the survival and the wellbeing of people who use drugs,” she said.”

Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.