The Texas Department of Public Safety told Texas lawmakers on Tuesday it’s seeing more and more fentanyl on the streets across the state.
A synthetic opioid about 50 times stronger than heroin, fentanyl is growing in popularity and has created problems for law enforcement officers responding to large busts of several pounds or more. The substance can be deadly if breathed in or absorbed through the skin.
In Harris County on Tuesday, a sergeant was hospitalized after touching a flyer laced with fentanyl.
Because of its potency, the DPS is now sending all powder substances seized in raids to labs for testing instead of conducting normal field tests. Officers also have to wear special protective clothing to protect themselves from exposure.
It’s just one of the ways that law enforcement agencies in Texas have had to change procedures in response to the opioid crisis, which local sheriffs and police chiefs discussed in a hearing Tuesday before the Texas House Select Committee on Opioids and Substance Abuse.
They said the drugs are destroying quality of life in their communities, draining city and county resources and leading to increased arrests.
“We are only catching the tip of the iceberg,” said Jim Sevey, police chief in Nacogdoches, an East Texas town of about 34,000 people. “The problem is way, way, way bigger than I think we realize.”
The 13-member committee was formed after the last legislative session to look at how the opioid crisis and substance use in general are affecting the state, which in 2016 saw a 7.4 percent increase in the number of opioid overdoses.
The committee was tasked with studying drug use among pregnant women, veterans, homeless people and people with mental illness, as well as how law enforcement and first responders’ jobs are having to change to respond to the crisis.
Kathleen Berg, an emergency room doctor at Dell Children’s Medical Center and other Seton hospitals in the Austin area, said Tuesday going to work has become emotionally taxing.
She’s seeing younger and younger children coming into the hospital for overdoses, including children and toddlers who have gained access to their parents’ medications. When Berg finds out her patients have been obtaining opioids from other doctors, she said they often get violent when she won’t write them a prescription.
“It is disruptive to the regular emergency department flow,” Berg said. “I’ve had multiple threats of violence when I say I won’t prescribe opiates for patients. I’ve had to have police escorts to my car after shifts because patients have threatened to be waiting for me.”
Health professionals asked for a number of legislative solutions, including increasing medication-assisted treatment programs like methadone clinics in the state and expanding access to drugs like naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Committee Chair Four Price, R-Amarillo, said lawmakers in other committees already are considering many of these ideas, including a system that would make it easier for doctors and hospitals to use the state’s prescription drug monitoring program. Pharmacists are required by law to enter all prescriptions into the system, which is linked across multiple states, and, by 2019, all prescribers will be required to use it before dispensing opioids.
But the system can be complicated and time-consuming to navigate, health professionals said.
Lawmakers could change that by appropriating funds to purchase new and better software.
“If we can make that faster, obviously it’s easier for them to utilize and maybe makes the whole process overall a little more efficient,” Price said. “The committee on appropriations will have to consider that. They may rely on some of our recommendations or look at what we studied in making those determinations.”
Price said it’s possible lawmakers could craft a new good Samaritan law, which protects people who call police to report a drug overdose from prosecution for some offenses. A similar bill passed the House and Senate with wide support in 2015, but was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott because it did not “include adequate protections to prevent its misuse by habitual drug abusers and drug dealers.”
New data presented by the Texas Department of State Health Services on Tuesday showed similar laws in other states have resulted in as much as a 15 percent drop in opioid overdoses in the past five years, despite nationwide increases. The laws also do not appear to increase the number of drug users, the data shows.
“It indicates that there is some effectiveness if implemented and crafted effectively,” Price said. “That is something we should continue to review.”
The committee plans to submit a report based on testimony by November, which could help craft new bills for the 2019 legislative session.