War-on-Drugs Style Bill Won’t Help Fentanyl Crisis, Advocates Say

Just a day after the Travis County medical examiner’s report was released last Wednesday, detailing a more than 1,000% increase in fentanyl-related accidental deaths since 2019, House Bill 6 passed the larger chamber and headed to the Senate.

Photo by The Austin Chronicle

Known as the drug-induced homicide bill, it would allow prosecutors to charge drug dealers – or anyone who gives someone fentanyl that causes an overdose – with murder, one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s legislative priorities. Despite the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance decrying the bill for its continuation of the massively expensive and unsuccessful war on drugs, state troopers removed protesters from the gallery and the bill passed on a 124-21 vote.

“We’ve known forever that criminalization doesn’t work, it’s actually more harmful,” THRA’s Paulette Soltani told the Chronicle. Research from other states with drug-induced homicide laws has shown that they may in fact exacerbate the harms of the overdose epidemic, prosecuting friends and loved ones of overdose victims. “It creates deeper racial disparities and increases the likelihood that people won’t call for help when there’s an overdose happening, because they’re afraid that they will be arrested,” said Soltani. “These laws will lead to more deaths.”

Overdose deaths are already increasing at alarming rates. According to the medical examiner’s report, compared to 2021, total accidental overdoses rose 35% in 2022, and have doubled since 2018. Those that involved fentanyl more than doubled last year alone. Carolyn Williams, who was evicted from the Salvation Army shelter during its closure earlier this year, lost her son to an overdose mere months after her other son was killed by Austin police. “It’s hard,” she told the Chronicle. “I mean, it’s such a heartbreaking situation to lose a child.”

That’s why Williams joined THRA at the Lege last Thursday to advocate for the passage of a bill that would legalize fentanyl testing strips, taking them off the list of drug paraphernalia whose possession is a Class C misdemeanor with a fine of $500. “If they’re willing to [make] the test strips available to everyone, it’s going to stop the dying,” she said. Soltani agreed: “The folks we work with know that there’s fentanyl in their drugs. But this is still a really important tool so that people are able to test and confirm. When people test, they often use more slowly, they use less at a time.”

The test strip bill has passed the House and is currently stalled in the Senate without a hearing, where THRA says Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, is blocking it. Huffman is also the author of the Senate companion to Abbott’s favored drug-induced homicide bill. However, Abbott has also publicly supported fentanyl test strips, which makes Huffman’s behavior all the more confusing. “They must be doing some politicking that is going to devastate people’s lives,” said Soltani. “That’s the only thing we can think of. We understand that the other Republicans on the committee may actually support it – that she’s the one holding it up.” To Williams, Huffman has “no compassion. I mean, who wouldn’t want a bill passed that’s gonna save lives?” Huffman’s office did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment.

As the overdose crisis that Travis County formalized this time last year continues to swell, fresh horrors appear, like “tranq,” a drug containing fentanyl mixed with xylazine (often used by vets) that is less responsive to Narcan – the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about its increased prevalence and the Biden administration declared it an emerging threat in April. Xylazine-linked deaths increased more than 1,000% in the South from 2021-22 according to a 2022 DEA report. “It’s the exact same trend as fentanyl, what we’re starting to see with xylazine,” said Soltani. “This is what happens when we push the drug market so far underground that we have no idea what the hell is in it.”

At a press conference last Wednesday, Travis County Judge Andy Brown announced a request for $750,000 in the FY 2024 county budget that would put $398,551 toward critical infrastructure for community orgs like THRA that are already engaging in outreach, and $350,000 toward an “emergency action fund” for overdose and suicide prevention. As the state takes more action on the crisis in the form of Narcan funding from a federal opiate settlement, THRA urges better coordination on prevention efforts, to provide other harm reduction tools as well: “Both the county and the city are saying, ‘Oh, we’re gonna put this towards Narcan,’ when the state of Texas is also putting funding towards Narcan,” Soltani said. “Why don’t we coordinate on how we’re going to use these funds?”

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