TEXAS VIEW: Abbott’s big flip-flop on fentanyl could save lives

THE POINT: Decriminalizing the potentially life-saving strips is needed but why did it take so long?

For too long, many believed that fentanyl wasn’t a Texas problem. “There’s no sense of urgency,” paramedic Daniel Sledge complained to the Chronicle last year. As one of the people who saw the drug’s deadly impacts on the state, he knew better than most the damage the potent, highly addictive drug could do.

But his efforts to save people, many of whom weren’t even aware they had ingested fentanyl, were hampered by the state’s own underfunded lifesaving drug overdose treatments and restrictive policy that demonized fentanyl testing strips as illegal “drug paraphernalia.”

Now, as fentanyl deaths rise in the state and nation, Gov. Greg Abbott finally seems to have woken up to the reality of the crisis.

Though he’s touted his $4 billion-and-counting Operation Lone Star as a response to the deadly wave, he’s historically eschewed the changes that harm-reduction advocates say could make an immediate difference on the streets, including decriminalizing testing strips that would help users confirm whether fentanyl is in other drugs they buy.

“I was not in favor of it last session,” Abbott admitted after a visit to the University of Houston, where researchers have developed a vaccine that could potentially inoculate people against the effects of synthetic opioids, according to the Texas Tribune.

But times have changed — and lives have been lost, including 1,672 Texans in 2021, according to the state’s estimates. “There’s going to be a movement across the state to make sure we do everything that we can to protect people from dying from fentanyl, and I think test strips will be one of those ways,” he said.

We hope he’s right, and we applaud the governor’s change of heart. It may indeed save lives. As many as half of overdose deaths are due to drugs laced with fentanyl without the users’ knowledge, according to a 2019 estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But how many lives could have been saved already in Texas if the governor hadn’t resisted the test-strip solution in the first place? Parents who have lost children in this crisis should be asking that question. Abbott’s about-face, welcome as it is, is just another example of our state leaders rejecting science and the advice of health advocates until the political winds are favorable to such changes.

It’s the same thing we’re hearing now from Republican lawmakers who are signaling that they’re ready to consider adding some nuance to the state’s extreme abortion ban after so many instances of women imperiled as doctors weighed what kind of intervention was needed with what was still allowed under the law.

Why does it take carnage and suffering and tragedies ripping through families for Texas leaders to see the wisdom in policies that have been no-brainers in other states for years?

Sadly, we know the answer. In our state, top Republicans don’t make policies based on what can help the most Texans, but what can help the Texans who matter most: their donors and voters. The cold truth is that the horrors of fentanyl became a convenient political issue for Republicans, not just because enough Americans of all stripes were dying from the crisis, but because it was helpful in distracting from safety concerns about gun violence and in whipping up people’s anxieties about border security.

In the past, we’ve written about how Operation Lone Star’s particular approach to the border misunderstands the realities of how fentanyl is made and transported, including that analysis suggests that most of the people arrested at the border bringing it into the country are U.S. citizens. But it’s not just a matter of misplaced strategy. While Republican lawmakers have touted past legislation that directed funds to treatment and to increasing the availability of naloxone, the anti-overdose medicine, state efforts have been inconsistent and have not kept pace with the need. In January, when the federally funded state program “More Narcan Please” ran out of funding, advocates pointed out that the state should be supporting the use of the lifesaving medicine with its own funds.

Hubris and the political expediency of a tough-on-drugs stance seems to have outweighed any interest in the actual lives of Texans.

For now, Abbott’s statement on supporting test strips is just a promise. And it will never undo the harm of his previous stance. It was Abbott, after all, who vetoed legislation in 2015 that would have ensured that people who called 911 to report an overdose wouldn’t be penalized even if they also had illegal substances. Lawmakers eventually passed an “all but useless” version of the legislation without protections for people with prior drug convictions.

This session, lawmakers will have the chance to move forward on at least one bill that would decriminalize fentanyl testing strips, thanks to legislation filed by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio).

It’s admirable, and too rare, when politicians can change their minds with new information. But the information — that testing strips can be lifesaving or that we should encourage lifesaving behaviors — isn’t the new part.

We’ve known that for years. All that’s changed is the politics, and the number of Texans who died while Texas leaders refused to do the right thing.

Houston Chronicle