AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County Judge Andy Brown wants the county to be able to give out fentanyl testing strips as a means of helping combat the growing drug crisis facing Central Texas right now. The problem? They’re illegal in our state.

Fentanyl testing strips can be used to test drugs, powders and pills for the presence of fentanyl, which is often more potent than other drugs and can be fatal. The strips allow people to take extra steps to protect themselves or to not take the drugs altogether.

But under the Texas Controlled Substances Act, drug testing equipment is classified as drug paraphernalia which, you guessed it, makes it illegal for people to recreationally test.

It’s something Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Democrat from Dallas, tried to change last year in a bill that aimed to remove criminal penalties for the possession of drug paraphernalia. That bill passed committee on a 6-3 vote but ultimately didn’t make it to the chamber.

That leaves Travis County’s hands tied when it comes to the ability to look into that specific harm reduction solution as its stares down a growing, and fatal, crisis.

“It’s something that from what I’ve heard, especially from the harm reduction community, that would save lives,” Brown said. “Absolutely we would like to look into the possibility of making them available to the public if they were allowed by state law.”

The test kits have been discussed by Brown in the growing number of conversations he and commissioners have had about overdoses and overdose deaths here in Central Texas. Health leaders at the table have questioned the effectiveness of the tests in preventing people from continuing to take the laced drugs.

“One of the things to keep in mind though is that some of these people are desperate enough that they’re willing to take the risk,” Heidi Abraham, the deputy medical director for Travis County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) said when Brown brought the testing strips up earlier this month. “I don’t think that’s it’s going to completely eliminate the problem.” 

“It won’t be a cure for the problem,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, added.

But Gregory Roselle, marketing content manager at Recovery Unplugged, disagrees with that argument.

“That much is irrelevant. What is relevant is some people when they see that are not going to use it and that is the most important part,” Roselle said.

The problem in Central Texas

Preliminary data sent to KXAN by Austin Public Health shows between Feb. 14 and March 14 there were 240 visits to local emergency departments classified as overdoses. It’s important to note that these were substance overdoses, not specifically fentanyl overdoses. The peak number of visits was March 1 with 18 — the same day three people died of accidental drug overdoses in Austin.

Initial toxicology reports showed in all three of those fatal cases cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl were detected. One patient also had Phencyclidine, or PCP, in their system, according to those initial findings.

“There is an increase in the use of the pills that are mixtures of things and we’re going to take the action that we need to take based on this being a crisis situation,” Walkes said, noting the 30-day data showed an uptick in overdose-related emergency room visits for people under the age of 18.

Again, those pills cannot be tested recreationally. They would only be able to be tested after the fact or if found by law enforcement.

‘These tests are critical to preventing overdoses’

Just last month, New Mexico lawmakers legalized fentanyl tests in an effort to reduce the state’s high rate of overdose deaths. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed off on that harm reduction bill making it law.

According to legislation and data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were nearly 71,000 substance abuse overdose deaths nationwide in 2019. That was before the pandemic exacerbated that number significantly.

In the same year, there were 599 deaths in New Mexico, roughly 40% higher than the national average, according to legislation.

In support of that bill, the New Mexico Department of Health commented the following, which was included in the fiscal impact report:

This bill contemplates DOH providing test strips for Fentanyl. These tests are critical to preventing overdoses. The bill will allow DOH to issue the best and most up to date tests to program participants. Law enforcement will know participants can lawfully possess them based on their enrollment in the program. New Mexico State Police will have representation on the advisory committee that will help in developing the policy for the Harm Reduction Program. Reducing the negative health effects of drug use in our communities plays a critical role in an overall public safety strategy.

How the testing strips are being used in other parts of the country

One of the studies that New Mexico lawmakers pointed to in their legislation was a test strip pilot that happened in San Francisco starting in 2017 which is used by the National Harm Reduction Coalition in their fentanyl fact sheet.

That pilot found that even people who were going to use drugs regardless of fentanyl results took extra precautions — like having Narcan on hand. It found the strips were a positive tool for educating people.

The National Harm Reduction Coalition also posted “considerations” from the pilot including that the tests are sensitive and pick up small traces of fentanyl. That could mean if someone uses the drugs and doesn’t feel the dramatic effects, they could doubt the test’s effectiveness. Testing also isn’t always 100 percent reliable and testing needs to be done on all of the materials used.

A broad swath of states to our north have already legalized the testing strips. North Carolina and Virginia also legalized testing before the pandemic hit.

According to their websites, large cities like Richmond and Arlington pass out those tests at Narcan trainings and other community centers.

But still, in Arlington, Virginia, opioid incident data of all police-investigated overdoses involving opioids has gone up since those were legalized in 2019. That data shows in 2019 there were 6 fatal opioid overdoses, that jumped to 28 in 2021. That matches national trends that show a dramatic uptick in fatal opioid overdoses around the country since the start of the pandemic.

What is legal and being done in Travis County

The health authority said Austin Public Health is in the process of requesting nearly $3 million in funding from the federal government to do more surveillance and collect additional information about the drugs circulating in our community. That will help inform next steps.

Brown also says over the next couple of weeks the county will be providing two separate $50,000 payments to groups that will provide methadone, which helps with opioid withdrawal symptoms, to people struggling with addiction in Travis County.

“Methadone provides a way for people to not take those drugs, to operate, to go to work possibly and most importantly not die from taking illegal drugs,” Brown said.

Narcan helps prevent overdose deaths and is available in Texas without a prescription at many pharmacies like H-E-B, CVS and Walgreens. Narcan is a brand name for naloxone.

“Narcan is extremely important, Narcan is one of the only ways that you can stop an overdose,” Roselle said.

KXAN reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on this issue at the state level, confirmed with the press office that they received our inquiry, and has not heard back at this point.