Senate unanimously approves harsher fentanyl sentences
The Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that would lower the threshold for felony conviction of making or dealing fentanyl while increasing the penalties for those convicted. Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid with a lethal dose of less than two milligrams, is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in America every year. The Centers for Disease Control says that 71,000 Americans died of a fentanyl overdose in 2021 and of those, more than 1,600 were Texans. "In just this past week, in downtown Austin - so just a few blocks from where we are - there were 21 overdoses in a 24 hour period and three people died." said Houston Senator Joan Huffman. "In a three week period this month in Hays County ISD… had three students overdose, the youngest to die was 15 and the oldest was 17." DPS has seized 353 million fatal doses of the drug, said Huffman, at the border with Mexico. It's now the number one killer of adults aged 18 to 45.
Huffman, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said she is taking a broad approach to addressing this deadly problem. First is SB 645, which lowers the threshold for felony manufacture or delivery of the drug from one gram to less than one gram. Penalties would go up as well, instead of facing a state jail felony, convicted offenders would face a third degree felony and up to 10 years in prison. If someone dies from fentanyl the offender made or sold, the offense would increase to a second degree felony, which can carry a sentence of 20 years. Huffman amended the bill on the floor to add a third option, a first degree felony murder charge for extraordinary circumstances.
The next part of the plan is SB 1319, which would update state medical privacy laws to allow law enforcement and healthcare workers to participate in a free national overdose incidence mapping program. The Department of Justice uses state-level data to identify overdose hotspots and help state and local lawmakers direct resources to where they are most needed, but in Texas there is concern that medical privacy laws might expose law enforcement and health workers to liability. Huffman's bill would remove those barriers and require that law enforcement and first responders report overdose incidents to the federal database. Data would be anonymized and only include information like age, type of overdose, and whether an overdose reversal drug was used. "You can look on this and see in real-time where the overdoses are occurring," said Huffman. "If [law enforcement and first responders] see something is happening in their area, they may be able to be more responsive, recognize the symptoms quicker, and respond to calls for help quicker."
Third, Huffman is prioritizing spending on programs that aim to reduce overdoses, combat trafficking, and increase prevention. In the base version of her filed Senate budget, Huffman allocated $18 million for preventative education and to provide overdose reversal medications like naloxone to law enforcement and first responders. She's also included $187 million for DPS crime lab support to local jurisdictions prosecuting fentanyl crimes, and a record $4.6 billion for Operation Lone Star, the state's border security program, in order to improve drug interdiction efforts. "It's a fact that fentanyl is flooding our borders, it is absolutely, without a doubt, killing our citizens on a daily basis, and it's time that we take a comprehensive approach to combating this deadly drug," said Huffman.
Huffman was joined by all of her colleagues in passing both bills. Senator José Menéndez of San Antonio rose to praise Huffman's efforts in combating this pernicious drug. He says it's not hard addicts that are being victimized by fentanyl. "When people think of fentanyl, they're thinking about drug abuse but many times it's young people purchasing what they think to be a prescription drug," he said. "They think it's something to help them take a test or stay awake." Menéndez himself is carrying a bill this session to supply overdose reversal drugs to public schools.
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