AUSTIN (KXAN) — It has taken years of grief counseling to help Annie Hernandez openly discuss the loss of her son. Joshua died in 2019 in Austin, after unknowingly taking a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl. He was 33 and had been in a car accident that led to a painkiller addiction, she said.
But his life could have been saved by Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote that can quickly halt the deadly effects of narcotics, Hernandez said.
In the wake of Joshua’s death, Hernandez has worked with the Texas chapter of the Association of People Against Lethal Drugs to raise awareness of Narcan and promote its distribution to people that both use drugs and first responders.
Fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Texas, and the nation, have skyrocketed in the past few years.
That’s why Hernandez said she was angry to learn few departments are tapping into state-level programs that would pay to equip first responders with Narcan.
“I am very pissed,” said Hernandez. “This is not good…. This is a lifesaving drug.”
In recent years state lawmakers have recognized the mounting death toll from opioids, and fentanyl in particular. To help, legislators established grants to equip law enforcement with the drug, but a KXAN investigation has found few departments applied for that money in the past two years. Also, the state’s only program specifically for Narcan grants is no longer funded after only two years in existence.
That currently unfunded grant program, called the “Opioid Antagonist Grant Program” was created in 2019 by State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. The state appropriated $500,000 for it, but all the money was distributed to just four departments, according to Governor’s Office records.
“It does not surprise me that these grants programs are not being utilized adequately,” said Cate Graziani, co-executive director of nonprofit Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. “Law enforcement departments are the front-line enforcers of the war on drugs and have been slow to embrace overdose reversals, and first responders often arrive too late to administer Narcan, if they are called at all.”
Graziani said Narcan access programs should emphasize getting the antidote to drug users and their communities, but that should only be one part of a larger strategy.
“It wouldn’t hurt for every law enforcement officer to carry Narcan,” she said. But there should be more focus on “community-based public health strategies that include harm reduction outreach teams and community health paramedics, (and) drug education rooted in science.”
Fentanyl test strips, which could detect if a drug has been adulterated, should also be legalized and made widely available, Graziani said.
At a 2019 senate hearing for Huffman’s grant program bill, the senator said she was “hopeful that we’ll get some money in the state budgets to fund this. It is a real issue, as fentanyl becomes more prevalent in our state, and it really can be deadly.”
Where did the grants go?
During her 2019 statehouse testimony on the bill, Huffman said she was prompted to create the grant program after seeing a news profile of a law enforcement agency purchasing naloxone, which is the generic name for Narcan. She discussed the drug purchase with that department and discovered “evidence technicians and forensic analysts around the state are occasionally hesitant to test unknown substances, thought to be narcotics, fearing that inadvertent contact with the substance might result in an opioid overdose.”
Huffman said she learned there was no state grant program specifically for opioid antagonists, according to recorded testimony of the April 17, 2019, senate hearing.
So, she created one.
“I assume maybe [Houston Police Department] and some of those have [Narcan] on hand, but I’m more worried about these local, more local, where a law enforcement officer could make a stop on a rural stretch or something, and come in contact and not have the quick availability of this,” said Huffman, whose district includes parts of west Houston, and Brazoria and Fort Bend counties.
Governor’s Office records show most of the funds did not go to rural areas, and it is not clear if any of the Narcan obtained through the grant program was distributed to evidence technicians or forensic analysts.
Of the nearly $500,000 spent through Huffman’s grant program, 99% went to Houston-area law enforcement, including $425,306 to the Houston Police Department and $59,400 for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
The Governor’s Office said it could only provide grants for jurisdictions that applied for the grant.
“Harris County and the City of Houston took the opportunity to apply and (the Public Safety Office) was able to fully fund both applications due to the low demand in applications received,” said a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office.
Two rural counties received 1% of grant funds distributed. Briscoe County in the Panhandle with a population of 1,500 and Red River County in northeast Texas, population 13,000, received a total of about $4,500, according to Governor’s Office records.
Briscoe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Spence confirmed his office received enough Narcan to equip three or four deputies with two doses each. Spence said fentanyl has not been a significant issue in the county but is “coming to be a problem.” He said his deputies deal often with non-local people passing through on the highway.
About $11,000 from the grant program was not used, state records show.
In fiscal year 2022-23, Huffman’s opioid antagonist grant will cease to exist as a stand-alone program, because the state didn’t appropriate funds for it, according to the governor’s office.
Grants for Narcan are still available through the Criminal Justice Grant Program within the Governor’s Public Safety Office, but there have been no applications for fiscal year 2022, the Governor’s Office said.
KXAN asked the Governor’s Office if it was satisfied with the performance of the grant program. The office said it had reimbursed law enforcement agencies with “the equivalent of 98% of the appropriated funds for this purpose.”
Huffman did not agree to an interview for this report or answer questions sent by email.
Fentanyl deaths skyrocketing
The limited use of the grant programs for Narcan comes during a period of skyrocketing opioid overdose deaths due to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100-times stronger than morphine being found in deadly quantities in counterfeit pills and laced drugs.
In 2020, at least 1,082 people died of synthetic opioid overdoses in Texas, excluding deaths from methadone, which is used to treat opioid addiction, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That 2020 total is a three-fold increase compared to 2019, which saw 318 synthetic opioid deaths.
During an address in May about border security, Gov. Abbott said seizures of fentanyl have increased exponentially from 11 pounds in 2020 to 95 pounds in the first four months of 2021.
Departments with Narcan
Houston Police Department got the largest grant for Narcan through Huffman’s program. They received enough to buy 4,245 two-dose kits to distribute to the patrol division and units “most likely to come into contact with citizens in distress.” That Narcan would replace an existing batch that was reaching its expiration date, according to HPD public information officer Kese Smith.
Smith said HPD officers have used the Narcan 164, and “all 164 of those people think it was helpful.”
Harris County’s fentanyl-related deaths have increased five-fold since 2017, according to HPD data.
Sarah Reyes, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said her nonprofit advocates for treating addiction as a disease and health issue, rather than a criminal issue. She said TCJC does not condone police officers searching for drug users and the criminalization of drug addiction.
However, if police are going to engage in that type of policing, they should have Narcan, since they are often the first people at a scene of an overdose.
“Minutes and seconds definitely matter,” said Reyes. “We definitely support police officers and first responders having that on them because, again, it’s a life-or-death type situation.”
Hernandez said she believes her son could have been saved by Narcan, but nobody with the drug came to his aid.
To cope with her loss, Hernandez attends group grief counseling sessions at the Christi Center. These days the group specific to overdose deaths has grown rapidly, and it is filling with parents whose children are dying younger and younger, she said.
“We are in a whole new plane of narcotics, when we are talking about fentanyl,” Hernandez said.