Gov. Abbott directs Texas agencies to enhance response to fentanyl crisis


Boram Kim


In a letter sent this week to state agency leaders, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed state agencies to address the threat posed by fentanyl to communities. 


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Texas witnessed 5,033 drug overdose deaths in 2021, a 19.8% increase from the previous year, growing at a rate higher than the national average. Fentanyl-related deaths were up 89% during that period. 

Travis County declared a public health emergency in May in response to the surging number of overdose deaths. At that time, fentanyl-related deaths in the county were up 237%.

“Fentanyl’s potency and deceptiveness, combined with the federal government’s unwillingness to take border security seriously, pose a grave threat to Texans,” reads Abbott’s letter. “We must take all appropriate actions to inform Texans of this danger and prevent additional deaths. Together we can help bring awareness to the threat posed by fentanyl and do our part to address this crisis.”

The letter was addressed to the leaders of 9 state agencies including outgoing DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt, and HHSC Executive Commissioner Cecile Young.

In the letter, Gov. Abbott also urged strategic coordination with the Texas Opioid Abatement Fund Council to further amplify efforts. The council was established to ensure that money received through state opioid settlements is allocated fairly to the opioid response. 

As the Texas Legislature prepares for the next session, Gov. Abbott ordered state agencies to outline statutory changes, budget priorities, and other initiatives that will enhance the state’s ability to interdict the synthetic opioid, provide emergency overdose treatment, and expand substance abuse treatment programs. 

“HHSC is developing a comprehensive response to Governor Abbott’s directive to raise awareness and increase education about the dangers of fentanyl,” HHSC said in a statement. “We remain committed to addressing the dangers posed to Texans by the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, through the Texas Targeted Opioid Response–a public health initiative launched in 2017. TTOR saves lives and provides life-long support to Texans with opioid and stimulant use disorders by expanding access to prevention, integrated treatment, and recovery support services.”

Texas lawmakers were unable to pass a bill during the last legislative session that would have removed criminal penalties for possessing drug testing kits. Under the Texas Controlled Substances Act, drug testing equipment is classified as drug paraphernalia, which makes fentanyl testing strips illegal. 

Gov. Abbott attributed the fentanyl crisis to the “threats posed by an open border and in the absence of federal action.”

But harm reduction advocates say making naloxone more widely available and providing access to testing kits and clean syringes are critical to the state’s opioid approach and will help save lives. 

“The reason why fentanyl is a problem is not because of border security or because the law has not been strict enough,” said Aaron Ferguson, part of the Leadership Team at Urban Survivors Union in a statement. The union advocates for compassionate harm reduction strategies. 

“On the contrary, the reason why fentanyl exists in a formulation that is killing so many people is due to the very same approach that Governor Abbott is espousing. This is not a partisan argument; it is a statement of fact. The Iron Law of Prohibition dictates that the stricter the enforcement, the more dangerous the drugs become. This is a mathematically derived law, and the numbers don’t lie. The same thing that is happening with opioids happened with alcohol during prohibition.”

Ferguson said the “war on fentanyl” is a “war on people” that has historically targeted and incarcerated marginalized groups in America and that border security is not to blame for the crisis but the drug enforcement policies themselves. 

“Black, brown, and low socioeconomic status Americans will continue to be incarcerated at incommensurate rates to white affluent counterparts who use illegal drugs at similar or higher rates,” Ferguson said. “It only fits that Governor Abbott would target immigration since doing so aligns with a long history of political use of drug control to target marginalized communities.”