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Fentanyl Overdose Law Sparks Controversy

To combat the Fentanyl crisis, Gov. Greg Abbott signed four bills into law. 

During his State of the State address in February, Abbott declared the opioid epidemic an “emergency” and made it a priority this legislative session. 

“These four laws will forever change Texas through new protections that will help save lives,” he said in a press release. “In 2022, more than 2,000 people died from fentanyl in Texas — more than five a day. It is the No. 1 killer of Americans ages 18-45.”

A highly addictive synthetic opioid, Fentanyl, is 50 times more powerful than heroin and is responsible for more than two-thirds of nearly 110,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. last year. 

The drug can be legally prescribed to patients with persistent pain in small and firmly regulated doses. However, over the past five years, illegal versions have become increasingly common. Fentanyl is often mixed into counterfeit prescription pills and other drugs available on the streets such as cocaine. Often victims who fall victim to the drug’s use are not even aware that they have been taking fentanyl. 

Texas Legislature with bipartisan support passed, House Bill 6, which will require overdoses from synthetic opioids to be classified as “poisonings,” and anyone who is charged with murder for giving someone a fatal dose of fentanyl. Texas joined some 30 other states, to have a drug-induced homicide statute in the books.

In recent years, the approach to combat drug addiction has evolved with the federal and state government both allocating more funds for treatment and prevention. 

However, for many public health experts, the tough new fentanyl laws are a replay of the war-on-drugs conviction era of the 1980s and 90s in response to crack and powder cocaine. They are concerned that these new laws will lead to similar results with incarcerating mostly low-level drug dealers, largely people of color who might be selling to support their addictions. 

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, last year the federal trafficking prison sentence for a fentanyl-related substance was six and a half years. Out of those convicted, 56% were Black, 25% Hispanic and 17% white. 

The Biden administration stands by the concept of “harm reduction” — with the goal of making drugs less dangerous for users. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved Narcan, an overdose reversal medication, for over-the-counter purchase. 

SB 867 will allow Texas universities and colleges to distribute Narcan or other opioid antagonists on campuses. 

Other bills signed by Abbott include HB 3144 which will make October fentanyl awareness month. A bill dubbed “Tuckers Law” will require public schools to provide students with fentanyl abuse prevention and drug poisoning awareness for grades 6-12th. 

While measures like legalizing test strips were rejected by lawmakers once again. 

A drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Neill Harris, told the Texas Tribune that to fight fentanyl and other forthcoming drug crises, the state would need to increase access to medical substance abuse treatments over enforcement measures. 

“Until we have policies that address the demand, we’re going to continue to have a problem with drug use,” she told the Texas Tribune. “Law enforcement has always had problems with reducing the drug supply. We look back over decades and it has never been effective at slowing down the supply. Because there’s always a demand. It’s just simple economics.” 

A senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, Michele Steeb, told the Texas Tribune that their organization views addiction as a complex brain disease. 

“Well-supported scientific evidence shows that brain disruptions reduce brain function which inhibits the ability to make decisions and regulate one’s actions, emotions, and impulses,” she told the Texas Tribune. “… Diseases require treatment.”

Harris told the Texas Tribune, that if the state can’t control the supply of the drugs then time would be better utilized by focusing on reducing the harm of drug use by legalizing testing strips, giving substance use options to the uninsured and making substitute drug treatment like methadone more available. 

Atirikta Kumar
Atirikta Kumar
Atirikta Kumar (@AtiriktaKumar) is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science at the University of Houston. Atirikta is passionate about writing about the criminal justice system and issues in order to inform the public about their communities and politics. She also writes for her college newspaper, The Cougar.

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