House lawmakers heard tearful testimony on a bill that would legalize equipment used to test substances for fentanyl in Washington on Tuesday. This follows the Senate’s unanimous passage of the bill on March 7th.
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Members of the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee held a public hearing on Senate Bill 5022. The bill would remove equipment used to test the purity of a controlled substance from the state’s definition of unlawful drug paraphernalia.
Bill sponsor Sen. Ron Muzzall (R-Oak Harbor) is a member of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee. He said he realized the importance of passing a bill like SB 5022 last summer, when he and other committee members visited a rehabilitation/homeless center in Yakima. Staff there notified him of fentanyl test strips’ potential for saving lives.
“Currently, we have municipalities that are distributing them,” Muzzall said. “Technically, it’s unlawful for them to do that. There are vending machines, there are other methodologies they’re using for distributing these. I don’t think that this [bill] can be misconstrued to help those who are distributing drugs. This really and truthfully is to save lives.”
Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Kent) testified in support of SB 5022 as well. She sponsored House Bill 1006, which would essentially provide the same provisions as SB 5022. But after unanimously passing the House, HB 1006 has not progressed in the legislature since a reading in the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Feb. 10th.
“We both have felt very touched by working on this,” Orwall said. “We’ve gone through a pandemic, (and) there are so many people in emotional pain. In King County, they’ve had a 164% increase of fentanyl poisonings in the last two years. There’s so many parents and families suffering, we feel like this is an important step forward. We really wanted to have their stories told.”
Muzzall and Orwall both began working on legislation to address the state’s fentanyl crisis after hearing from constituents or acquaintances who lost loved ones due to the drug.
Genevieve Schofield, who testified in support of SB 5022, reached out to Orwall after her daughter died on Oct. 26th, 2021. She was notified of her daughter’s death when she received a phone call from her father while she was working from home.
“In the days following this call, I learned my daughter died from fentanyl poisoning,” Schofield said. “The toxicology report showed that there was seven times the amount of fentanyl that one can withstand in her system. One pill that she thought was oxycodone took this beautiful life. In fact, the pill didn’t have any oxycodone. It was only fentanyl and carfentanyl.”
Schofield’s daughter had been suffering from chronic pain and fibromyalgia, and made every effort to obtain pain management/medication from a physician, but to no avail.
“In her desperation to escape the pain, she accepted a pain pill from a friend,” Schofield said. “At this time, there was no widespread conversation surrounding fentanyl poisoning.”
After her daughter’s death, Schofield read about fentanyl test strips and learned that the life-saving tests were illegal because they were classified as drug paraphernalia in Washington. She contacted legislators for help in changing that law, and Orwall responded.
“These test strips save lives, and they can be the difference between getting the phone call I received, and a life,” Schofield said. “I implore you to make these available for all.”
Muzzall is an acquaintance of Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, whose son died after a decade-long addiction to pain pills. His addiction led him to buy pills off the street, Janicki said.
“The last pill he ever took was laced with fentanyl,” Janicki said. “I don’t know if the test strips would save him or not, but I want it to save somebody.”
Brad Finegood, strategic advisor at the Seattle & King County Public Health Department, said more than 1,000 people died of a drug overdose in King County last year.
“When I started in 2015, we had around 325 people die,” Finegood said. “So, in seven short years, we had a three-fold increase. Out of those 1,000 people who died, over 700 of them were fentanyl-related. Fentanyl continues to come into our community in the form of pills, powders, and rock. People think they’re using some other type of substance. And these testing mechanisms can help.”
The committee didn’t take any action on the bill on Tuesday.