On Thursday, May 13th, advocates for changes in Texas’ drug policies made a bold statement as they protested outside Senator Joan Huffman’s Capitol office in Austin. The demonstration aimed to urge the senator’s support for a bill proposing the legalization of fentanyl test strips, according to Dallas Metro News.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has been linked to a concerning number of overdose deaths, making the legalization of such test strips a potential lifesaving tool. The bill is bipartisan and has gained Governor Greg Abbott’s support, but advocates claim that Huffman, a Houston Republican, is obstructing the consideration of multiple bills designed to legalize fentanyl test strips.
The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance organized the demonstration, with its Director of Organizing, Paulette Soltani, imploring lawmakers to back the bill. “This bill needs to move. We need everybody to support this basic harm-reduction tool,” she said. Unfortunately, Huffman’s office has not yet responded to requests for comments on her position regarding the proposed legislation.
As Texas braces for the end-of-session push, opioid epidemic and state drug policies are among the primary discussions. A House-passed bill, legalizing fentanyl test strips, awaits hearing in a Senate committee, while a nearly identical companion bill from Senator Huffman passed the Senate unanimously in April. The measure is now before a conference committee, tasked with ironing out any minor differences between the two versions.
The House has also voted on a bill to increase criminal penalties for people caught selling or distributing fentanyl, allowing prosecutors to charge those individuals with murder. The bill has bipartisan support and aims to tackle the opioid epidemic with a hard-hitting approach.
However, critics argue that the policy may worsen the problem. Such examples are cited in other states where increasing penalties for drug usage led to more overdose deaths and criminal charges for family and friends present when the victim took the drug. Instead, they argue that helping those with drug addictions is a more effective approach than incarcerating them.
Despite Abbott’s support, the fentanyl test strip bill faces significant roadblocks in the Senate. Supporters are puzzled by the Senate’s obstruction of House Bill 362. They believe that the legalization of fentanyl test strips is a smart public health approach, particularly in a state that has traditionally responded to drug epidemics with punitive measures.
The bill proposes removing fentanyl test strips from the state’s list of drug paraphernalia, enabling people to avoid potential misdemeanor charges for possessing them. Presently, possession of drug paraphernalia, such as used syringes, pipes, and fentanyl testing strips, is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.
For those advocating for a change in the state’s drug policies, the test strip legislation represents a small but essential step in the right direction. However, further action is needed, such as decriminalizing tools that test for other emerging drugs like xylazine. Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer that people mix with drugs to make them more potent, causing wounds of scaly, dead tissue. As of now, HB 362 has not received opposition, even from law enforcement groups that typically oppose the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia, arguing that it could lead to more lenient drug policies.
Republican sponsors, such as Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, oppose expanding the list of drug paraphernalia to be legalized. Nonetheless, Oliverson remains optimistic that the bill will pass, stating that his conversations with Senate leaders have been positive. “You have to win minds and hearts. It’s part of what we’re trying to do,” Oliverson said.
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