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Texas House advances bill decriminalizing fentanyl test strips

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

Texas House advances bill decriminalizing fentanyl test strips” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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In an effort to combat a rising number of opioid overdose deaths in the state, the Texas House on Monday gave initial approval to a bill that would decriminalize fentanyl test strips, which warn people if a drug they are about to take contains traces of the deadly synthetic opioid.

The House voted 135-7 to give initial approval to House Bill 362 by Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress. The legislation still needs final approval from the chamber, which it is expected to get on Tuesday, before it heads to the Senate.

“Overdose deaths continue to skyrocket as fentanyl floods across our southern border, and we need a way to combat the crisis,” Oliverson said on the floor of the House on Monday. “Decriminalizing test strips is one way to do that.”

The bill would take fentanyl test strips off the state’s “drug paraphernalia” list, meaning it would no longer be a crime to carry strips that would test for fentanyl or other fentanyl derivatives. Supporters of the bill say that would prevent overdose deaths by giving people a tool to know if a drug they are about to take has been mixed with fentanyl.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 107,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021. Synthetic opioids were responsible for 71,000 of those deaths, and they were largely caused by fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin. It is sometimes prescribed by doctors for pain management, but has become readily available on the illicit market due to its production by Mexican drug cartels.

The criminal organizations favor production of fentanyl over other drugs because it is very cheap to make, increasing their profits. Drug dealers have also started mixing fentanyl into other drugs or disguising their fentanyl to make it appear like prescription drugs.

But unlike medically prescribed fentanyl, the cartels’ illegally produced drug has no oversight and often contains lethal doses. As little as 2 milligrams, about the size of five grains of salt, can be deadly depending on a person’s body size and tolerance.

Though the bill is a step forward, drug policy experts say it doesn’t go far enough. By solely focusing on fentanyl, lawmakers are repeating past policy mistakes of fixating only on the drug of the day while other, sometimes stronger, drugs are beginning to penetrate the illegal drug market.

Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said lawmakers should consider expanding the bill to cover equipment that tests for other drugs, including xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that is increasingly being mixed into fentanyl and other illicit opioids. The drug causes a stupor that can last for hours. It also leads to wounds of a scaly dead tissue called eschar that, if left untreated, could require amputation. Xylazine test strips recently became commercially available but such test strips for controlled substances are illegal to carry in Texas.

“Thankfully, xylazine is not yet a major problem in Texas,” Neill Harris said. “But if we don’t act now, it will become one. Expanding HB 362 to include xylazine test strips would help the state intercept this drug before it becomes a greater threat.”

In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned of a sharp increase of fentanyl mixed with xylazine, which was making the deadliest drug threat in the country “even deadlier.”

Still, the decriminalization of fentanyl test strips is an acknowledgment by Republican state leaders that their past “tough on drugs” approach has not worked.

In Texas, the CDC predicts that more than 5,000 people died of drug overdoses between July 2021 and July 2022. Overdose deaths involving fentanyl in the state more than quadrupled in two years, rising from 333 people dying in fiscal year 2019 to 1,662 deaths in fiscal year 2021.

Those numbers are likely far short of the actual fentanyl-related deaths in the state, where tracking of opioid overdose deaths is inadequate. Texas has only nine medical examiners’ offices for a population of 30 million, meaning that a lot of the state’s investigation and tracking of deaths is scattered and does not always reach the levels of scrutiny to discover whether opioids were involved.

The increased penetration of fentanyl into Texas’ illegal drug market has led to a rash of teen deaths across the state, some after they believed they were taking a different type of drug.

Deaths from fentanyl cut across age, race and wealth groups, making combating overdoses a top priority for lawmakers this session. Gov. Greg Abbott, who previously opposed decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, came out in favor of the policy last year.

The topic is a rare point of bipartisan agreement at the Legislature, where several similar bills are filed in both the House and the Senate.

Erin Douglas contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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