AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to legalize fentanyl testing strips. The bill will now head to the Senate.
The test strips cost roughly a dollar and can be used to test drugs, powders and pills for the presence of fentanyl, which is significantly more powerful than other drugs and can be fatal. But under the Texas Controlled Substances Act, drug testing equipment is classified as drug paraphernalia, which currently makes it illegal for people to recreationally test.
“The people who sell fake pills containing narcotics aren’t attempting to sell a product that kills their consumers,” said Rick Cofer, an Austin criminal defense lawyer who has represented Texans who have been charged with possession or distribution of fentanyl.
“Those who are arrested should be prosecuted vigorously and defended vigorously so that the system is fair, but empowering all Texans to test any pills that they may happen to purchase for the presence of fentanyl is going to save lives.”
House Bill 362, authored by Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Harris County), passed through the House on its final reading with 143 yes votes and only two representatives voting no. Gov. Greg Abbott has already indicated he would sign the bill into law if it made its way to his desk.
“It restores my faith in the democratic process that Democrats and Republicans can come together and can find common ground on a common sense issue like this. If we don’t pass this bill, Texans will die needlessly,” Rep. James Talarico (D-Austin), a joint author of the bill, said.
Previously, Republican lawmakers have questioned the legalization of the strips, expressing concern they might encourage drug use. Abbott has since said he believes the strips should be legalized.
“So that people will be able to test drugs at home to know whether or not it might be laced with fentanyl,” Abbott said after visiting with University of Houston researchers who have developed a fentanyl vaccine.
The bill now moves to the Senate. Several similar or identical bills were filed there, indicating likely support there too.
“We’ve had great conversations, bipartisan conversations and bicameral conversations — so in both chambers of the legislature — and we think there’s broad support for this common-sense policy that can save people’s lives,” Talarico said.
If signed into law, the bill would legalize having, passing out and making the strips. Travis County Judge Andy Brown said if those strips are legalized, he’ll immediately start working to get them in the hands of the right people.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help distribute fentanyl strips if they are legal and continue to help distribute and purchase Narcan to stop overdoses when they’re happening,” Brown said.
Drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in Travis County in 2021 for the first time in a decade. In the first six months of 2022, there were 118 fentanyl-related overdose deaths, meaning someone died of an overdose and had fentanyl in their system. It’s the exact same number Travis County saw in all 12 months of 2021.
Brown said the full medical examiners report for 2022 is expected to be released before the end of the month and is likely to show the trend continuing.
“Everything I’m hearing is that we have not solved this crisis yet and that people are still dying in increasing numbers from opioid-related deaths, and especially fentanyl deaths,” Brown said.