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Wichita City Council to consider decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, no longer use city courts for some marijuana charges

A fentanyl test strip is used to detect fentanyl in a drug sample. Such test strips cost about $1 apiece.
Jesse Costa
/
WBUR
A fentanyl test strip is used to detect fentanyl in a drug sample. Such test strips cost about $1 apiece.

In the first half of 2021, Kansas was one of the states showing the steepest increase in overdose deaths.

The Wichita City Council will vote next week to revise a city ordinance to decriminalize possessing fentanyl test strips and single-use marijuana.

The test strips allow users to test substances for fentanyl before unknowingly consuming it. In the state of Kansas, they’re illegal and considered drug paraphernalia.

With the new ordinance, people in possession of the strips won’t be arrested by Wichita police.

Police said earlier this year they have yet to arrest anyone for possessing the strips.

If approved, the ordinance will also no longer use the city’s municipal courts to prosecute people for possessing single-use marijuana.

“Kansas is surrounded by states that have some form of legalization of marijuana at some level,” Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said. “So we know that this is more prevalent, and we just think our officers have better things to do like fighting crime… [than] arresting an older woman who might be using a THC vape so that she can fight chronic pain.”

The mayor also said the new ordinance will help people avoid drug convictions, which can hurt their future employment opportunities.

“If you go into our current system, you can pay a fee, and then … you're out the door, but you have a drug conviction,” Whipple said, “which means you'll never work for one of our top employers in the city; you'll never work even for the city.”

The ordinance was brought up at a City Council meeting earlier this year by council member Mike Hoheisel.

At the time, Hoheisel said removing penalties for possessing fentanyl test strips could save lives.

“Hopefully we can give people chances to actually come out of their addiction as opposed to dying from it,” Hoheisel said.

“A lot of good people get hooked on this stuff. And … we need to continue to come up with different ways and different treatment programs that are effective in dealing with addiction. But you can't help somebody if they're already dead.”

In the first half of 2021, Kansas was one of the states showing the steepest increase in overdose deaths.

That same year, Sedgwick County recorded more than 200 overdose deaths compared to 162 in 2020, according to the Regional Forensic Science Center.

The city of Wichita previously tried to decriminalize marijuana in 2015 with a referendum approved by voters, but the Kansas State Supreme Court struck it down. 

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.