AUSTIN (KXAN/Nexstar) — A new Texas law will up the criminal penalties for fentanyl distribution, including allowing prosecutors to seek a murder charge in connection with fentanyl-related deaths.
The bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed Wednesday afternoon, will increase criminal penalties for selling and distributing fentanyl. House Bill 6 also allows prosecutors to seek a murder charge for a person who manufactures or delivers fentanyl when someone dies as a result of the controlled substance.
Now that it’s signed, the bills into effect Sept. 1.
“Fentanyl is an epidemic that very simply, is taking too many lives,” Abbott said during the bill signing ceremony. “Because of the courageous partnership of grieving family members Texas legislators and our office, we are enshrining into law today new protections that will save lives in Texas.”
A case of a fentanyl-related murder charge has already happened in Central Texas. In May, an 18-year-old was charged with murder in connection to the fentanyl-related death of a 15-year-old student in Hays CISD.
The bill will also add “Fentanyl Poisoning” or “Fentanyl Toxicity” on a death certificate if a lethal amount of the substance is found in a toxicology report.
Advocates fear unintended consequences
Joseph Gorordo — a licensed chemical dependency therapist, who previously battled drug addiction himself — said he is happy to see progress on fentanyl legislation, but thinks some of the conversations are missing the mark.
Specifically with the law that increases penalties for fentanyl-related crimes, Gorordo worries it will end up putting more people struggling with addiction behind bars, rather than addressing some of the root problems.
“We’re not going to see this huge spike in arrests of drug dealers or drug traffickers, we’re going to see a spike in arrests of normal people who may be occasional drug users, we’re gonna see a rise in arrests of regular habitual drug users — because those are the folks are gonna get caught up in this,” he said.
According to June data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, drug offenses make up nearly half of the total number of individuals incarcerated, with 44.5% of inmates behind bars for drug offenses.
“If we want to help folks who are struggling with addiction, then we can’t keep making them criminals. That doesn’t encourage anybody to seek help. It doesn’t encourage anybody to change their lives,” Gorordo said.
Nexstar asked Abbott to respond to concerns like Gorordo’s during the press conference.
“Those are the kinds of issues that legislators grapple with as they work on crafting a law,” he said. “We always can modify it if we learn more in the future about the need to modify it. But I think this is the best pathway forward to achieve a goal: our collective goal is to reduce people dying from fentanyl.”
What happened to efforts to legalize fentanyl testing strips?
Advocates have said they’d like to see a greater focus on investing in recovery programs and prevention tools, one of those being fentanyl testing strips.
Currently, under the Texas Controlled Substances Act drug testing equipment such as these strips are classified as drug paraphernalia, making it illegal for people to recreationally test.
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.
While the Texas House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 362, which would allow people to safely test their drugs for fentanyl, those efforts were not mirrored in the Senate where similar bills died, despite Abbott’s support of the measure.
“There’s a direct correlation with making those strips available and legal to a reduction in death and human suffering. So that’s really disappointing,” Gorordo said.
Other fentanyl bills signed into law
The governor added his signature to three other bills, including another that allows the state to partner with Texas colleges and universities to provide Narcan on campuses. Narcan, medically referred to as Naloxone, is a nasal spray used to reverse the effects of overdoses in emergency situations.
Another new law requires public school districts across the state to provide yearly instruction about fentanyl abuse and poisoning prevention, which is part of Tucker’s Law that a Williamson County mother who lost her son pushed this session.
Lastly, October will now be designated as “Fentanyl Awareness Month” under another law signed Wednesday.