AUSTIN, Texas – At the beginning of the regular legislative session, Texans called for policy changes to address the state’s opioid crisis. The Wheeler family went to a rally at the Texas State Capitol to remember Spencer, a son and brother who died after taking fentanyl.
“He died in September of 2022. We miss him every single day. He’s like, just a kind, kind soul,” said his father, Hunter Wheeler.
The Wheelers were surrounded by other families and friends who have lost loved ones. They gathered to ask lawmakers for help. Elaine Fisk was there. She also lost her son to fentanyl poisoning.
“I found [Ben], and he had been clean for nine months. But with fentanyl, you can’t relapse,” Fisk said back in February.
Those impacted by fentanyl asked lawmakers to fund treatment centers, legalize test strips and increase access to Narcan, which can reverse an opioid overdose. Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation to make Narcan available in schools, but a bill to legalize fentanyl test strips didn’t make it to his desk.
“I think that the ball was majorly dropped with fentanyl testing strips,” Wheeler said. “We need every tool at our disposal. And some of them, like fentanyl testing strips, that’s low hanging fruit... We need to [check] off the simple tools off the checklist and get those in the hands of our kids.”
Those testing strips can detect the presence of fentanyl in different kinds of drugs, which could save someone’s life.
“Having that knowledge of, ‘Oh, this has fentanyl in it,’ there is research showing that people change their decisions based on that, right? They might not use the drugs, they might use less,” said Katharine Neill Harris, a fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
The governor says he supports legalizing fentanyl test strips, after he previously opposed it.
Harris notes that individuals can still go online and purchase fentanyl test strips themselves.
“Law enforcement is not, I don’t think, in most jurisdictions really concerned with this behavior,” Harris said. “The big thing with the effect of not legalizing is that you can’t have, for example, city [and] public health entities be involved in larger community distribution programs.”
Harris praised the Legislature for making Narcan available in public schools and requiring reporting of overdoses so the state can track data, but she says there’s more work to do.
“You can’t just have prevention if you don’t also have treatment and harm reduction,” Harris said. “There’s sort of a continuum, right? Some people haven’t started using drugs yet, but some people are already using them, right? Prevention isn’t really going to help with that group.”
The next regular legislative session will begin in 2025. Harris says there could be other “big drug problems” in addition to fentanyl by then.
“There’s a drug right now called xylazine. It’s an animal tranquilizer that also causes overdoses [and] really bad skin sores for people. Test strips for those became commercially available during the session. I know that myself and many others tried to bring this information to our elected officials, and the ones that were in a position to actually do something about it didn’t really listen,” Harris said.
“I don’t want to say that we’re gonna have an increase in overdoses between now and , but maybe we will, and I hope that that’s enough for them to take action," Harris continued. "But I just don’t know. I think that the peculiarities of the way that the Texas Senate works are a big hindrance to change. And the basic thing is just that the lieutenant governor has so much control over the agenda in the session, and so if he doesn’t like a bill, then the Senate won’t hear it. There was support for the fentanyl test strip bill in the Legislature, but they just did not get an opportunity to fully hear it and discuss it.”
House Bill 362, which would have decriminalized fentanyl test strips, passed the House but was not heard in the Senate.
Another bill, House Bill 6, which passed, increases penalties relating to the possession and sale of fentanyl. If someone knowingly delivers fentanyl to someone who later overdoses, they can be charged with homicide.
“What we’ve seen in states that have started applying these drug-induced homicide laws is that very often they’re not applied to people who are at the top of the food chain on selling,” Harris said. “They’re applied to people’s friends, their loved ones, other people who are using together. One person gets the drugs, and then it’s just sort of a matter of chance that one overdoses and the other doesn’t. And so I think those kinds of laws, they make people more fearful of calling 911 to report an overdose, and there’s not really any evidence that they are going to be helpful in connecting people with treatment, and also that they’re not going to stop people from seeking out drugs or from providing those drugs.”
Those who showed up to the Texas Capitol time and time again to ask lawmakers to increase access to care and legalize fentanyl test strips have vowed to keep trying.
“I think that we were lacking a comprehensive strategy to address this epidemic of not just fentanyl, but of drug use in general,” Harris said.
The fight against fentanyl is far from over.
“I don’t want people to senselessly lose a beautiful child and go through what I’ve gone through,” Wheeler said. “It’s the worst thing.”