AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hannah Procell believes her friend Julian would still be alive if harm reduction tools were commonplace in how we fight the skyrocketing number of accidental overdose deaths.

Julian died of a fentanyl-related overdose on his college campus. Procell believes that wouldn’t have been the case if someone around had Narcan, or if fentanyl testing had been available.

“It doesn’t have to be the way that it currently is, we can change that. And we can prevent these preventable deaths. And we can make a difference,” Procell said. “I witnessed a moment in which a tool existed.”

That unexpected tragedy is why Procell got involved with a group called Dance Safe. She’s now the policy change coordinator pushing legislative and local-level initiatives that would make harm reduction tools accessible in areas where that’s not already the case.

One of the biggest hurdles, as KXAN has noted in our previous coverage, is that drug testing is illegal in many states, including Texas. A fentanyl test could have saved Julian’s life — but in our state, it would have been illegal to have it.

Fentanyl testing is an inexpensive way to check for the presence of fentanyl, which is often more potent than other drugs and is potentially fatal. The test strips allow people to take extra steps to protect themselves or to throw the drugs out altogether.

But under the Texas Controlled Substances Act, drug testing equipment is classified as drug paraphernalia, which makes it illegal for people to recreationally test. Having those tests can result in misdemeanor charges.

It’s something Travis County Judge Andy Brown has addressed recently and a law Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Democrat from Dallas, tried to change during last year’s legislative session. That bill passed committee but ultimately didn’t make it to the chamber.

While Republican lawmakers have not been outspoken about fentanyl test strips specifically, nor did Gov. Greg Abbott’s office return our calls and emails for comment on this series of stories, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been vocal against anti-harm reduction policies for drugs overall.

On his podcast last month, “Verdict with Ted Cruz,” when asked about Pres. Biden’s national harm reduction grant program, Cruz claimed that the program would give out free crack pipes. Meanwhile, the Biden administration said that’s not true.

“Talk about a great crime policy,” Cruz said. “As many people on crack as possible — these are your Democrats.” Cruz ended the conversation by using the catchphrase: “Just say no.”

Tests still making their way to Texas

So if the tests are illegal, why are drug checking results from Austin listed on the Dance Safe website?

Regardless of the law, Procell said fentanyl tests are being shipped to Texans through the Dance Safe website. She said because the company is registered in Colorado, which does allow for the sale and possession of drug testing equipment, Dance Safe hasn’t been challenged legally on that practice.

Fentanyl test strips for sale on the Dance Safe website
Fentanyl test strips for sale on the Dance Safe website (KXAN)

“It’s an individual’s choice. You know, ‘do I want to make sure that my community and my friends are safe? Is that more important to me then the risk of a misdemeanor charge for the possession of this kit?'” she said. “So I think essentially, even though it is illegal — just like it is illegal to possess drugs in the state of Texas — people are starting to acknowledge that the risks associated with all these practices are things that need to be weighed and talked about.”

It’s also not something the Austin Police Department says is likely to get you in legal trouble, with them at least. A spokesperson for the department said this:

It is always difficult to properly consider every possible scenario when an absolute hypothetical is posed (e.g. ‘would we ever do X if Y occurs’), but I’m not aware of an instance in which we have charged someone for possessing a fentanyl testing strip, and it certainly isn’t one of our enforcement priorities. As indicated by APD’s widespread deployment of Naloxone, our primary focus is preventing overdoses in the community.”

Through Dance Safe, a single fentanyl test strip can be purchased for roughly $2. A box of 100 strips is just south of $150.

The strips are also currently available for purchase on Amazon. Using a Texas address, it did not appear the company had placed any shipping restrictions on those products. KXAN did reach out to Amazon.

“If we want to reduce overdose rates in our communities, we should adopt proven models that are used around the world, we should remove the criminal barriers that keep people from receiving life saving public health resources and services and we should treat the overdose crisis like the public health emergency that it truly is,” Procell said.