© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa lawmakers consider bills aimed at reducing fentanyl overdose deaths

Experts say fentanyl mostly comes in a powder form and is often laced with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, which can be unbeknownst to the user.
Michał Parzuchowski
Experts say fentanyl mostly comes in a powder form and is often laced with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, which can be unbeknownst to the user.

Iowa lawmakers are considering proposals from the governor and attorney general aimed at addressing the recent spike in fentanyl-related drug overdose deaths.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can be deadly in very small quantities. Some people who use drugs seek it out, but fentanyl is also being added to many other drugs, causing people to unknowingly ingest it. Some Iowans have died from taking just one counterfeit pain pill that looked like a prescription drug but actually contained fentanyl.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is proposing enhanced penalties for dealing fentanyl and an expansion of who can distribute a medication that reverses opioid overdoses. Attorney General Brenna Bird is proposing a new state-level crime of causing a death by manufacturing or delivering an illegal drug.

Speaking Monday on IPR’s River to River, Republican Rep. Brian Lohse of Bondurant said he believes stiffer penalties will deter some sales of fentanyl, but he said it will likely be a minimal impact.

“It also is about justice for the victim,” Lohse said. “The fentanyl is a particularly, to me, kind of a heinous thing because you have people mixing this into drugs to make it more potent, more addictive, without any regard for the personal safety of anyone.”

Democratic Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames said studies have found that raising criminal penalties does not do much to prevent illegal drug distribution.

“We can fill up our correctional centers and keep filling up an overburdened system, or we can try to address things from the other end, the user end, and even users who are supplying others,” Wilburn said.

Both lawmakers said raising criminal penalties isn’t enough, and that the state needs to improve access to substance use disorder treatment.

Jon Schulte of Des Moines lost his daughter to an overdose in 2019.

“She had been through a lot of treatment centers and it seemed like every time she’d join one they would close up shortly afterwards, so obviously more funding and more attention to addiction treatment would be nice,” Schulte said on River to River.

But Schulte said it came down to her friend not having an opioid reversal drug on hand to save her life.

Wilburn and Lohse both said they support expanding the availability of opioid overdose reversal drugs, often referred to by the brand name Narcan. Reynolds’ bill would allow school districts, health providers and law enforcement agencies to give Narcan to family members and friends of people at risk of an overdose, or anyone else who might be in a position to help.

Wilburn said the legislature should also legalize fentanyl test strips to help avoid the accidental use of the drug.

Lohse said law enforcement groups have opposed the legalization of fentanyl test strips, which means Republican lawmakers are unlikely to support the change. But he said it’s not clear why the strips are classified as drug paraphernalia, and he thinks legalizing the test strips could help prevent some deaths.

Republicans and Democrats have said there’s a need for increased security on the U.S.-Mexico border as a way to reduce the amount of fentanyl entering the country.

“We have fentanyl pouring across this open border, and it’s flowing into our communities, and it’s killing our young people,” Reynolds told reporters last Thursday. “And it is unconscionable. Not only are we going to put stricter laws in place to prevent—to hopefully start to prevent that from killing our children—but also we’re doing a PSA just to help educate families about what to look for and how to have conversations with their kids.”

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is largely being produced in Mexico with raw materials from China. Most fentanyl is smuggled through official border crossings, often in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio