The powerful synthetic opioid was found in the hotel room where a mass overdose happened Sunday that left two dead and three hospitalized.

Gov. Josh Green said on Tuesday that he will sign Senate Bill 671 into law, a move to make fentanyl test strips legal in Hawaii and remove them from the list of banned drug paraphernalia.

By doing so, Hawaii is joining at least 16 other states that have legalized the strips since January 2022 as states try to grapple with the growing fentanyl epidemic.

The strips cost about $1 apiece, are available online for purchase and can save lives by allowing drug users to detect the presence of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid– in any substance they are planning to swallow, inject, snort or smoke.

Fentanyl test strips will soon be legal in Hawaii. (Courtesy: Kimo Alameda/2023) Courtesy: Kimo Alameda

“It is very important to legalize fentanyl test strips,” Green said in an email. “Fentanyl is 80 times more powerful than morphine and it suppresses the respiratory system to the point that it is sometimes not possible to resuscitate patients with Narcan. Fentanyl is being laced into other drugs and people are dying, as we saw with the tragic two deaths in Waikiki.”

Green’s announcement comes two days after a mass overdose in a Waikiki hotel room that killed two men and left two women and another man hospitalized. Police say fentanyl was found in the hotel room at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said.

The victims were identified as Joseph Iseke, 44, of Kailua, Oahu, and Steven Berengue, 53, of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii island, according to the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office.

Hawaii experienced a record number of drug overdose deaths last year. A total of 320 people in Hawaii died from drug overdoses in 2022, up from 305 in 2021 and 266 in 2020, according to Gary Yabuta, executive director of Hawaii High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

More than 106,000 people in the U.S. died from drug-involved overdoses in 2021, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids, according to federal data. That’s exponentially higher than those who died from overdoses in the 1980s during the height of the crack epidemic.

Green, a medical doctor, said some people worry that by legalizing these test strips Hawaii officials are sending the wrong message. He disagrees.

“We as a state need to be compassionate and focus on harm reduction. People who are addicted to drugs can use these test strips to determine whether they are about to ingest a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl — and be in a position to save their own lives,” he said.

The Legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 671, introduced by Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, and sent it to Green for his consideration on April 18.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu City Council is considering legislation making the overdose-reversing medication naloxone more widely available. On Wednesday, the council will take up Bill 28, introduced by Councilman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, that would require bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues to have naloxone, commonly sold under the brand Narcan, available on the premises.

“What happened in Waikiki is a tragedy. It serves as another reminder that we need to use every tool at our disposal to prevent overdoses,” Dos Santos-Tam said in a news release. “Bill 28 is about keeping the public safe — it’s about taking action on this horrible epidemic.”

Bill 28 will be heard for second reading on Wednesday. If passed, the bill would go to the Housing, Sustainability, and Health Committee, which is scheduled to hold its next meeting on June 21.

If the bill continues to move, the full City Council could vote on it July 12, according to the news release.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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