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Protesters decry stalled fentanyl test strip bill as Texas House backs get-tough criminal penalties

By James Barragán and Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

Protesters decry stalled fentanyl test strip bill; Texas House passes get-tough criminal penalties” 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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Advocates for changing the state’s drug policies took over Sen. Joan Huffman’s Capitol office Thursday morning demanding her support for legislation that would legalize test strips that can detect fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is blamed for a rapidly growing number of overdose deaths.

The legislation has bipartisan support and the backing of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has made combating opioid overdose deaths a key issue this session. But the advocates say Huffman, a Houston Republican, is blocking the consideration of multiple bills to legalize the potentially lifesaving test strips.

“This bill needs to move,” said Paulette Soltani, director of organizing for the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, which organized the protest. “We need everybody to support this basic harm-reduction tool.”

Huffman’s office did not respond to a request for comment on her position on the bill.

The protest came as the legislative session, which ends on Memorial Day, hits its home stretch and a House-passed bill to legalize fentanyl test strips languishes in a Senate committee without a hearing. It also came as the House voted on a bill that would increase criminal penalties for people who sell or distribute fentanyl, including opening the door for prosecutors to charge those people with murder.

That legislation, a key bill for Republicans pursuing a “tough on crime” approach to the opioid epidemic, won final House approval Friday on a 124-21 vote — putting the legislation on track to become one of the first leadership priorities to reach the governor’s desk.

Huffman’s companion bill, which is nearly identical, passed the Senate unanimously last month.

House Bill 6, by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, advanced on Thursday just a few hours after a small group of chanting protesters crowded the entry to the House gallery overlooking the lawmakers at their desks and yelled “No more drug war!” at lawmakers. The demonstrators were blocked at the gallery door by a handful of state troopers, and the tension ended after about five minutes.

HB 6 would increase the penalties related to the sale and production of fentanyl by classifying overdoses from the drug as “poisonings,” triggering murder charges for those convicted of giving someone a fatal dose of fentanyl.

“If you have not had a family member die from fentanyl overdose, if you don’t know anyone who has died from fentanyl overdose, consider yourself lucky. Because you’re in the minority,” Goldman said during the debate. “On behalf of all our family members who have died innocently by taking medication laced with fentanyl, we’re here today to tell the people who deal that drug … we’re coming after you.”

Proponents say the measure would help address a growing crisis in the state by holding dealers accountable and giving prosecutors more tools to charge those who manufacture and distribute the drug.

But opponents, who said the policy would prolong a 50-year, trillion-dollar war on drugs, argue that it would not fix the problem and would discourage people from seeking help for someone suffering from an overdose. Drug policy experts say the move to charge people who sell or make fentanyl with murder has backfired in other states, leading to more overdose deaths and criminal charges for family and friends who were present when the victim took the drug.

“No study has ever shown that increasing penalties for drug usage has ever reduced drug usage in people who have a drug addiction,” said Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “You’ve probably already decided how you’re going to vote, and that’s fine. What I’m here to do today is speak against the continuation of the drug war and the continued incarceration of people for drug addiction instead of providing them the help and care they need to not be addicts.”

The bill — supported by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan — now goes to a conference committee to hammer out differences, a technical process that is not expected to delay the bill’s ride to Abbott’s desk.

The fentanyl test strip bill, however, is on a more tenuous track.

The Senate roadblock on House Bill 362 has baffled supporters, who see the legalization of fentanyl test strips as a smart public health approach in a state that has historically responded to drug epidemics through punitive measures. The bill has the support of top GOP leaders like Abbott, who had previously opposed the policy but said in December that he had developed a “better understanding” that the state needs to take more drastic action to save lives.

The bill would remove fentanyl test strips from the state’s list of drug paraphernalia, letting people avoid a potential misdemeanor charge for possessing one. Currently, possession of drug paraphernalia — items used to consume illegal substances that can include fentanyl testing strips, used syringes and pipes — is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Huffman was not in her office Thursday morning when a group of about 20 protesters entered, chanting “Huffman lies, people die!” and “Shame on her!” Huffman has not publicly stated her opposition to the bill, but she is on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, where the bill has sat idle since early April. Houston Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, who leads the committee, told The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday that he supports the bill but that it does not have the backing of Republicans on the committee, who make up the panel’s majority.

“We’ve received calls that she is lobbying in committee against the bill,” Soltani told Huffman’s staff. “We’re not leaving until we learn her position.”

Huffman has led on other bills related to fentanyl, including a push to make it easier to report overdoses to public health authorities. As the Senate’s lead budget writer, she inserted $18 million over the next two years to help the state provide the public with more medications like naloxone — which can be administered through the nose with products like Narcan and others, or injected more directly into the bloodstream through muscles — that help reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Chanting “Get Huffman on the phone,” the protesters gave Huffman’s staff a petition signed by 700 people who support the bill. After about 15 minutes, DPS troopers escorted them out of Huffman’s office.

The other three Republican senators on the committee — Pete Flores of Pleasanton, Phil King of Weatherford and Paul Bettencourt of Houston — did not respond to requests for comment.

For those who want to change the state’s drug policies, the test strip legislation is seen as a small step in the right direction that falls short of other needed action, such as decriminalizing tools that could test for other emerging drugs, like xylazine, an animal tranquilizer which is being mixed into drugs to make them more potent and can cause wounds of scaly, dead tissue.

The bill’s Republican sponsors, like Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, are opposed to using the bill to expand the list of drug paraphernalia that would be legalized. As written, HB 362 has not received major opposition, even from law enforcement groups that usually oppose the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia under the argument that could lead to more permissive drug policies.

“This is the one thing we could pass in Texas because we have the support of conservatives, and [Huffman’s] holding it up,” said Cate Graziani, executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance.

Oliverson said he remains optimistic that the bill can pass and said his conversations with Senate leaders have been positive.

“They understand that fentanyl is a different category of drug,” he said. “You have to win minds and hearts. It’s part of what we do here.”

Rep. James Talarico, an Austin Democrat and a co-author of the bill, was more forceful.

“I don’t know how we’ll sleep at night if we don’t pass this bipartisan bill to save lives,” he said.

Texans seeking help for substance use can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. They can also access services in their region through the Texas Health and Human Services website.

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