Bill decriminalizing drug test strips in opioid-devastated West Virginia heads to governor

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A bill that would decriminalize all strips used to test drugs for deadly substances in West Virginia, the state with the nation's highest overdose rate, is headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Jim Justice.

Justice hasn't said publicly whether he supports the bill, which has received bipartisan support. The proposal follows a law signed by Justice in 2022 that decriminalized fentanyl testing strips.

“As time has gone, unfortunately, we’ve got fentanyl, now we’ve got carfentanil, now we’ve got xylazine,” Republican Deputy House Speaker Matthew Rohrbach said on the House floor before the legislation passed overwhelmingly Friday.

Rohrbach, who is also the chamber’s substance abuse committee chair, said the bill is meant to ensure that all drug test strips will be available to people who need them, without lawmakers having to pass new legislation every time a new one is developed.

“It just says, ‘test strips for deadly drugs will be exempted from drug paraphernalia,’” Rohrbach said.

Under West Virginia law, drug paraphernalia could be hypodermic syringes, needles, capsules, and balloons, among other items. A person found in possession of drug paraphernalia could face a misdemeanor charge, a fine of up to $5,000 and six months to a year in jail.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described drug test strips as a low-cost method of helping prevent drug overdoses.

The proportion of drug overdose deaths involving heroin has declined in recent years. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues were involved in 76% of all drug overdose deaths occurring in West Virginia in 2021, up from 58% in 2017. Approximately 75,000 of the nearly 110,000 overdose deaths of 2022 could be linked to fentanyl, according to data from the CDC.

Xylazine is a tranquilizer not approved for use in people that is increasingly being found in the U.S. illegal drug supply, and was declared an emerging threat by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2023. Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid approximately 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

Legalizing test strips could bring those numbers down, advocates say, saving lives by helping more people understand just how deadly their drugs could be.