Veronica and Daniel Kaprosy drove in from Selma, Texas to “make fentanyl poisoning visible. Our daughter, Danica, was 17 years old when she passed away in July of 2022.” (Photo by Lina Fisher)
Last Wednesday, hundreds traveled to the state capitol to listen to and share personal experiences with the opioid overdose crisis, and to demand immediate policy changes at the state level to strengthen organizations like Austin’s Texas Harm Reduction Alliance.
Harm reduction leaders from El Paso, Houston, San Antonio, and West Texas – most drug users and overdose survivors themselves – spoke to the urgency of the crisis, along with state legislators. Gov. Greg Abbott and some Republican lawmakers have shown support recently for legalizing fentanyl testing strips this session, but advocates say it’s not enough. “Our state is at a crossroads today,” began THRA’s Paulette Soltani, pointing to the $33 billion state budget surplus and extra billions from recent opioid manufacturer settlements. “Texas lawmakers have more than enough resources… if our leaders are serious about ending the overdose crisis, we have to get much more than fentanyl testing strips.”
The attending crowd – most wearing purple THRA shirts, some holding signs commemorating lost family members – heard lawmakers agree, flagging their efforts to expand access to Narcan, affordable housing, safe syringe programs, and mental health care. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who filed the original 2015 bill decriminalizing possession of opioid antagonists like Narcan, highlighted his SB 868, which would legalize fentanyl test strips. Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, talked about her own family history of substance abuse, and noted that Texas’ mental health care access ranks among the worst in the nation. “Our budgets in this building are moral documents. We have not invested in helping Texans get access to mental health and substance abuse care,” said Zwiener. “So yes, let’s advocate for test strips, let’s advocate for more Narcan, but let’s also advocate for Medicaid to fund more than 15 days a month, for psychiatric inpatient treatment, for Medicaid to cover step down treatments.”
Newly elected Rep. Jolanda Jones, D-Houston, gave the most personal testimony of the legislators, describing her family history of addiction and mental illness. Her brother died from overdose and her father died by suicide after the Vietnam War; she underscored the cascading effects of Texas’ lack of investment in health care, putting herself in the shoes of someone who is criminalized for their addiction: “So I’m having a problem, I don’t have access to health care, so I start self-medicating, then I get addicted. Then I do things that are addiction related, like start stealing. Now my addiction is a crime.”
The lived experience of most speakers anchored nearly two hours of testimony: Madelein Santibanez of Corazon Ministries’ harm reduction program in San Antonio – one of the only needle exchange programs in the state – described her own addiction struggles that began at 13 when her parents were incarcerated: “I struggled with anxiety, depression and a multitude of diagnoses because I was houseless, and that became my dependency.” She then questioned why police are often the first to receive Narcan, when of the “over 1,500 overdose reversals” Corazon did last year, “90% of them did not call EMS. Our people are not going to them for Narcan.” Jamie Diaz, a peer support specialist and harm reduction outreach worker in El Paso who advocated for supervised consumption sites in their speech, struggled with substance abuse for 20 years: “I’ve overdosed many times in my life and I shouldn’t be here. But I know I’m here at this moment today with you beautiful folks to fight and give those who don’t have a voice, a voice.”
After the speeches, purple coated the South Lawn of the capitol in a die-in, commemorating the estimated 5,000 Texans that died last year from overdose, per the CDC. Since 2019, Texas fentanyl overdose deaths have increased almost 500%. The Chronicle heard several individuals’ personal stories of losing loved ones to fentanyl poisoning: Austinite Chelsie Eades’ fiancé “and best friend of 16 years” Cameron died trying to take oxycodone, which was laced with fentanyl unbeknownst to him. “He was addicted to substances for years before he passed, but he had a long sober streak and that one relapse killed him. Stigma is the biggest thing,” said Eades. “It’s so easy to become addicted to opiates; it does not discriminate. Nobody grows up and wants to be a drug addict.”
Veronica Kaprosy and her husband drove in from Selma, Texas to “make fentanyl poisoning visible. Our daughter, Danica, was 17 years old when she passed away in July of 2022. We need to start reaching parents that haven’t been affected by this, to start thinking about it like it could happen to them.” Kaprosy showed a poster board of around 10 other children’s faces – their parents have banded together in Facebook groups of “angel moms” after they lost their kids. “It’s the same story, different child. We become friends, then we become family. We’re all trying to scream and yell at the government to hear us because they should be treating [the overdose crisis] like COVID.”
Claudia Dembra, a former drug user and harm reduction outreach worker in Houston, ended her speech in tears: “Drug users, we are not degenerates. We are not criminals. We are not rats and we are not deserving of death, or suffering, or living every day like we don’t deserve to be here.” Despite the pain of speakers and attendees alike, the atmosphere was one of hope and communion. “We are so happy to be standing in solidarity together today,” said Soltani. “It brings us so much hope that our community is showing up from El Paso to Austin. There are real solutions to end the overdose crisis and we know what those solutions are.”
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