BOSTON (WHDH) - STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 2, 2024…..The Senate is poised to kick off the second year of the legislative session with a trio of bills that seek to help people with disabilities and to make fentanyl test strips legal.

Senators on Tuesday teed up the three bills to debate at their Thursday session: to protect people who administer or use fentanyl test strips from criminal liability (S 2458), expand wheelchair warranty protections for people with disabilities (S 152), and require new guidance on how police officers should interact with people with autism (S 2204).

Fentanyl Test Strips

Sen. Cynthia Creem said the chief of police in her hometown of Newton first approached her about fentanyl test strips, saying that they are an important overdose prevention resource but are illegal in the state.

“They’re highly effective, easy to carry around, everything is right, except it’s considered drug paraphernalia in Massachusetts,” Creem said.

The testing strips can warn people if drugs or pills they plan to use contain the potentially deadly synthetic opiate that has infiltrated drug supplies across the country, fentanyl.

To test for fentanyl, a person can dissolve a small amount of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or other drug in water, then dip a test strip in the solution. Results take two to five minutes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Fentanyl is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more powerful, the National Institute on Drug Abuse said, and oftentimes people do not realize it is in the drugs they are using. The synthetic opioid began being recorded as responsible for an increased amount of drug-related deaths about a decade ago.

The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is now so prolific in Massachusetts’ drug supply that its presence is being detected in the vast majority of fatal opioid overdoses, and it’s also being detected in drugs such as cocaine, benzodiazepines and methamphetamine.

In the first three months of 2023, fentanyl was present in 93 percent of all fatal overdoses in Massachusetts, according to the most recent available data from the Department of Public Health.

“The drug supply is poisoned. Even for those who are using other substances like cocaine, methamphetamine and benzodiazepines, fentanyl is the likely contaminant that is driving overdose deaths,” DPH Commissioner Robert Goldstein said in December.

Individual test strips are about $1 each, but states where they are legal also commonly have community programs that give the test strips out for free. Since 2022, 16 states have legalized the tool, Creem said.

Under Massachusetts law, possession or sale of drug paraphernalia is punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine of $500. The definition specifically includes “testing equipment used, primarily intended for use or designed for use in identifying or in analyzing the strength, effectiveness or purity of controlled substances.”

Creem’s bill also includes an explicit good samaritan provision that exempts criminal or civil liability for “any person who, in good faith provides, administers, or utilizes fentanyl test strips or any testing equipment or devices solely used, intended for use, or designed to be used to determine whether a substance contains fentanyl or its analogues.”

The Newton Democrat said she envisions that the law could protect people who work with those with opioid use disorder, or have a loved one who uses drugs. She also said bartenders could give out the strips in settings where people may be using drugs.

“It’s not that expensive. My hope is that we make people aware that they may be available in a bar, at schools,” Creem said. “It would allow a drug user to decide not to use that substance. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be drug free, but they would better understand the dangers, or may not have tolerance for fentanyl, so they would know that substance was not something they could use.”

Wheelchair Warranty Protections

Senators will also debate a Sen. John Cronin bill on Thursday to expand wheelchair warranty protections.

The bill would require every wheelchair sold or leased in Massachusetts to come with at least a two-year warranty. During the warranty period, manufacturers would be required to provide a remote assessment for a defective wheelchair within three business days and an in-person assessment four business days after that. If an individual needs a temporary loaner wheelchair, the manufacturer would also have to provide one within a few days.

This bill would catch Massachusetts up with other states, Cronin said. Rhode Island and Connecticut require two-year warranties for wheelchairs. Massachusetts currently has a law requiring manufacturers to provide warranties to some individuals, but it is limited in scope. It only mandates a year-long warranty, doesn’t apply to all wheelchairs, and there are no current requirements on how quickly manufacturers must respond.

“It’s a bread and butter consumer protection bill that is going to be impactful for a population that is really vulnerable and the laws need to be strengthened to protect right now,” Cronin said.

Senators passed a version of the bill last session, though it didn’t make its way through the House. It was passed during informal sessions in 2022, Cronin said, after most formal business and roll call votes were done for the year.

The Fitchburg Democrat said he has spoken about the bill with people from the disability community who have recounted being “stranded” in their homes, unable to work or pick up their children from school without a working wheelchair.

“A broken chair affects not just their lives but their family’s lives,” he said. “The analogy that I use, if I’m on [Route] 128 and I have a flat tire or my car breaks down, I’ll get a tow truck or a service provider in an hour or two tops. We believe these are really reasonable standards we’re asking the wheelchair repair industry to meet.”

Chris Hoeh, a disability advocate and wheelchair user, said the repair process has always been slow, but that it has gotten markedly worse in the last year.

Hoeh uses a power wheelchair that he said cost $65,000. He noticed an issue with it in September — an important piece fell off, exposing the underside. Hoeh said he had to duct tape the chair to temporarily cover the exposed section.

The company he purchased it from could not do a remote evaluation of the damage until late October. After that evaluation, the earliest they could send a technician to Hoeh’s house for repairs was December 22, he said. Hoeh has a van and can drive — though not all wheelchair users can — so he asked when the earliest he could get an appointment at the repair shop was. It was still over a month away, and his chair was finally serviced on Nov. 28.

Hoeh said the repair did not fix all the issues with his wheelchair, and also lowered its clearance so he had trouble getting behind the steering wheel of his van. Asked when a technician could come fix the problems, Hoeh said he was told he’d have to wait until March.

The disability advocate said Cronin’s bill would be a “huge improvement,” and was especially excited about the shortened timeline for repair and requiring companies to provide loaner chairs for long repairs.

“If you don’t have a loaner chair then you’re stuck in bed,” Hoeh said. “People use the term wheelchair-bound. But wheelchairs free us. If we don’t have a chair we’re stuck in our bed or stuck in our house. And that’s not a dignified life.”

Interactions Between Police Officers and People with Autism

Drivers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a particularly challenging time during police stops and can end up in dangerous situations, disability advocates say.

Autism is associated with communication and social interaction difficulties. Some people on the autism spectrum exhibit repetitive behaviors, sometimes called “stimming,” such as hand-flapping, body rocking or repeating certain phrases. These behaviors can escalate if a person is agitated or anxious.

Without training, police officers can misread the actions of an individual on the autism spectrum and use force in a situation where it could have been avoided, advocates say.

Marie Zullo, a Norfolk mother of an adult child with autism, recounted a story of her son being pulled over to lawmakers during a June hearing on Sen. Jo Comerford’s and Rep. Kay Kahn’s bill (S 2204 / H 2259).

“Dominic is a safe, conscientious driver, but we worry the unexpected may be his undoing,” Zullo said.

She said her son could panic and become dysregulated, and hit himself or make dramatic statements in a situation with police. He could also have trouble processing what a police officer is saying to him.

“Last June, Dominic was rear-ended in an accident. In a panic, he started to apologize for an accident that was not his fault. He paced toward the highway traffic, his voice getting louder as he became dysregulated,” Zullo said. “Fortunately, my husband was with my son and was able to keep him safe, though was having trouble calming him.”

Her husband told the officer at the scene that Dominic was on the autism spectrum, and the police helped calm her son down and understand what had happened, Zullo said.

Comerford and Kahn’s bill creates a voluntary program to make available “blue envelopes” to hold the driver’s license, registration and insurance cards of a driver with autism. The bill also tasks advocates, chiefs of police, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles to create guidance for officers that will appear on the outside of the envelope.

Other states, including Connecticut, have similar programs.

The Massachusetts State Police Association and a representative of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association testified in favor of the bill during the June hearing.

“Massachusetts police officers conduct thousands of traffic stops each year. While most of these interactions are relatively routine, officers do not know who they are interacting with before the traffic stop so they proceed with caution,” UMass Amherst Police Chief Tyrone Parham said in a statement about the bill.

He continued, “The introduction of the blue envelope under these stressful interactions will provide immediate information and context to the officer as they begin to communicate. Traffic stops are some of the most dangerous citizen interactions by police and this additional informative information gleaned by the blue [envelope] will be extremely helpful.”

Comerford said some police departments began using the blue envelopes in their towns after local advocate Max Callahan, who has autism, began pushing for Massachusetts to start the program. Deerfield Police Chief John Paciorek “took it into his own hands” to use the system after meeting with Callahan, Comerford said.

This is the second time she has filed the bill, but the Northampton Democrat said “it’s an idea whose time has come in Massachusetts.”

“Having a visual reminder that someone may communicate in different ways and that someone can’t just jump to an assumption about behavior, communication, eye contact or body language … this could help both first responders and people with autism have an understanding and see each other as more human,” Comerford said.

Comerford said Callahan, Parham and other advocates will be at the State House on Thursday for the Senate debate.

(Copyright (c) 2024 State House News Service.

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