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Senate Passed Bill To Charge Fentanyl Distributors With Murder [Update]

SB 645 is part of a two-step plan to address the fentanyl crisis
Photo: Yavdat | Shutterstock

On March 15, 2023, the Texas Senate unanimously passed Bill 645 by Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which changes the classification of fentanyl overdoses to allow prosecutors to go after harsher penalties for those found guilty of distribution.

The new bill, presented to the state senate on January 2023, responds to the legislature’s tough-on-drugs approach and Governor Abbott's legislative priorities of increasing criminal penalties. By classifying fentanyl overdoses as “fentanyl poisonings,” the bill opens the door for prosecutors to charge people who make, sell and distribute the drug with murder.

Update 6/15/23 — 9:15 a.m.: On June 14, 2023, several bills aimed at fighting the deadly drug were signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott.

"In 2022, more than 2,000 Texans lost their lives because of fentanyl. That's more than five Texans losing their life every single day," said Abbott in an official ceremony celebrated on Wednesday attended by family members who have lost loved ones to fentanyl overdoses.

House Bill 6, one of the new laws that will go into effect in September, will allow prosecutors to seek murder charges for makers and distributors linked to fentanyl-related deaths. Carrollton police chief Roberto Arredondo had shown support for this bill at the Texas Capitol in April. "It's a tool and a resource for us to use and with the partnership that we have with the Dallas District Attorney and the other DAs in the area," Arredondo told NBCDFW. "we really do need our legislative bodies to enact these laws to help us, to give us these resources that we need to hold these drug dealers accountable."

Another law signed by Abbott on Wednesday will classify deaths by fentanyl overdose as poisoning. If a lethal amount is found in a toxicology report, then poisoning will be on the death certificate as the cause of death. This law would also increase criminal penalties for the production and distribution of fentanyl.

Two more laws were signed on Wednesday. Bill 3908 requires schools to provide research-based education on drug addiction and fentanyl abuse prevention for grades 6 through 12. According to the Governor's office's official statement, Senate Bill 867 will allow the distribution of opioid antidotes like Narcan to Texas colleges and universities to combat overdoses.

The original story published on March 17, 2023, continues below.

"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 Wednesday.

As previously covered by Local Profile, Collin County’s school districts are taking steps to address the issue with parents with the aid of local authorities, as fentanyl overdoses have claimed the lives of four students between Sept. 2022 and Feb. 2023 in addition to dozens of hospitalizations of children between the ages 13 to 18.

"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," said Senator José Menéndez of San Antonio. "They think it's something to help them take a test or stay awake." Menéndez is carrying a bill to supply schools with naloxone, an overdose reversal drug.

According to a state senate statement, the new bill is part of a two steps plan to address the deadly problem. In addition to SB 645, which, along with the reclassification of the cause of death, lowers the threshold for felony manufacture from one gram to less than a gram, the senate-approved Huffman’s SB 1319, which would update state medical privacy laws to allow the design of an overdose incidence mapping program.

 "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."

Huffman’s plan also involves spending on programs aimed at reducing overdoses and providing preventative education and overdose reversal medications. 

With both bills approved by the senate, they now move to the Texas House.