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State should legalize drug testing strips in special session now

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Travis County residents got a double dose of worrisome public health news in August, as data showed the county is on pace to lead the state in fentanyl overdose deaths for a second straight year, and another dangerous drug–the veterinary tranquilizer xylazine–was detected in five people who died since late May.

The deceased are, of course, more than numbers. They’re mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, siblings, co-workers and neighbors whose socioeconomic status and other demographics defy categorization.

Their needless deaths can be attributed to a number of factors, including an explosion in the amount of fentanyl flowing into the U.S. in recent years and a dire shortage of drug treatment options.

The Legislature wisely appropriated $18 million this year for the purchase of naloxone, an opioid antidote that can reverse an overdose if administered in time.

But lawmakers missed a simpler, far less expensive opportunity to help when they failed to legalize drug testing strips that are illogically classified in Texas as illicit drug paraphernalia on par with crack pipes and used syringes.

Drug testing strips cost about a dollar apiece, and can detect the presence of fentanyl, a powerful and sometimes fatal synthetic opioid, and xylazine, a lesser known but potentially deadly depressant that officials say is becoming more prevalent in Travis County and across the U.S.

Both substances are sometimes laced into heroin, cocaine, opioid pills and other drugs sold to unsuspecting users, some of whom tragically end up in the county morgue after ingesting them.

Abbott should persuade Republicans to legalize drug testing strips State lawmakers could get another opportunity to help if Gov. Greg Abbott would back up his stated support for legalizing drug testing strips with action.

In December, Abbott reversed his long-term opposition to fentanyl testing strips and urged the legislature to decriminalize them.

The Republican-controlled House responded enthusiastically, voting 143-2 to do so in April. But the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunch drug warrior, never considered the bill and blocked it from reaching Abbott’s desk. Patrick’s office did not respond to an Editorial Board request for comment last week.

Abbott has vowed to call another special legislative session this year so that the legislature can take up his school vouchers proposal.

We implore him to add legalization of drug testing strips to the agenda and put his political muscle behind getting it passed.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and supports legalizing fentanyl testing strips, said in April that some of his GOP colleagues oppose their legalization for fear of encouraging drug abuse.

But drug abuse is a reality regardless.

It makes no sense to block casual users or hardcore addicts from obtaining an inexpensive strip of paper that could help them test their drugs and avoid an early grave.

Legislative inaction on drug testing strips comes amid an explosion of fatal fentanyl overdoses in Travis County between 2019 and 2022, when the number of deaths grew by tenfold. There have been 127 fentanyl- related deaths reported in the county during the first five months of 2023, a pace that County Judge Andy Brown said last week could result in a record 300 deaths in Travis County this year.

Federal bill could help encourage legalizing testing strips at state level Instead of resisting calls to legalize drug testing strips, GOP lawmakers should follow the lead of Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican who is helping lead a bipartisan push in Congress to clarify federal law by specifying that the testing strips are not prohibited as drug paraphernalia.

The bill’s sponsors say that if approved, it would encourage states to assert the strips’ legality, as well.

“Fentanyl is ravaging Texas communities, and poisonings among children and teenagers have skyrocketed in recent years given the rise in fake prescription pills containing this deadly drug,” Cornyn said in a statement to the Editorial Board last week. “This legislation would help prevent deaths due to fentanyl poisoning by giving people the tools to identify it.”

Legalizing fentanyl testing strips is just one of many steps that local, state and national leaders should take to reduce an epidemic of overdose deaths, but it’s also one of the easiest.

And it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Texans shouldn’t have to wait any longer, or endure more needless and heartbreaking overdose fatalities, because lawmakers failed to act.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666