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'It doesn't ever go away': Arizona state senator shares grief after son's overdose death and her mission to protect others from fentanyl

State Sen. Christine Marsh says 'a really bad choice' cost her son his life. She wants to change state law to allow test strips for fentanyl hidden in drugs.

PHOENIX — Editor's note: A Senate committee unanimously approved a measure that would legalize the possession of test strips to detect the presence of fentanyl. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration. 

Democratic State Sen. Christine Marsh knows what her son would tell her.

“He was really a very, very tough kid. I call him a kid, he was 25,” she said. “I could just picture him saying, 'Mom, suck it up, get with it.'" 

Her youngest son, Landon Marsh, died of a drug overdose last May. He bought a street drug laced with fentanyl, Marsh said, and it killed him.

Landon was a newlywed and a mechanical engineering student who made “a really bad choice” with a friend on a weekend night in Tucson, Marsh said in her first interview since her son’s death. 

She spoke openly about her grief. 

“It doesn't ever go away,” she said. “I know that true peace and maybe even true happiness are going to be very elusive.”

Landon died as his mother was in the midst of a hard-fought campaign, her second in two years, to win the LD 28 Senate seat, representing north-central Phoenix and Paradise Valley.

“I tried very soon after to at least get functional. That was the goal,” Marsh said, her voice halting at times. 

“I started grief counseling right away. But to me that is the bar. It may seem like a low goal, but to me that’s a really high bar: Let’s just get and stay functional.” 

Now Marsh, a former Arizona “Teacher of the Year,” is in a place where she can make a difference as overdoses surge during the pandemic.

Finishing her third week as a Democratic state senator, Marsh is sponsoring a bill that she believes could prevent overdose deaths.

“Landon would want me to do everything possible to help others," she said.

Marsh’s proposal would legalize so-called fentanyl test strips, now banned as “drug paraphernalia.”

The strips work like urinalysis test strips to detect the presence of lethal fentanyl in a narcotic.

"Some smart people who use drugs in other parts of the country were able to determine they could test the drugs themselves,” said Haley Coles, of Sonoran Prevention Works, which worked with Marsh on her bill.

Coles’ non-profit works to reduce the harm to people who abuse drugs.

Statewide and nationwide, fentanyl is ranked as the major cause of the spike in overdose deaths, Coles said.

“We are seeing fentanyl being pressed into fake pills,” she said. “And that is where we are seeing a lot of people experiencing overdoses and many of them are fatal.

“People are taking pills they think may have come from a pharmacy that they’re getting from friends or maybe on the street. But those pills are full of fentanyl.”

She cautions the strips aren’t 100% accurate.

“Because fentanyl is so present in so many substances, we tell everybody to act as if there is fentanyl in their drugs,” Coles said.

A side benefit of using the strips is “it encourages people to slow down. A lot of overdoses happen when people are rushing to get high.”

Coles groups the test strips with naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses. In 2015, the state expanded access to naloxone to deal with an opioid epidemic.

“For those who are going to use drugs anyway,” she said. “These are really vital tools to avoid preventable death. You can’t recover if you’re dead.”