Last fall, I wrote about my optimism that laws supporting a public health approach to drug abuse and addiction may finally come to Texas. As CEO of Mothers Against Teen Violence (MATV), I wrote:
It's been a long time coming, but finally some of the national interest and enthusiasm for drug policy reform is beginning to trickle down to Texas. As lawmakers prepare for the 84th Legislature, bills focused on drug policy are among those already pre-filed and more will surely come.
MATV was dedicated to a public health approach to drug use and addiction. Harm reduction -- reducing the harms caused by drug use and ineffective drug laws -- was the lynchpin of our advocacy in Texas. Throughout 2014, we hosted quarterly meetings in Austin to connect and strategize with other reform-minded organizations. Working with this cohort, we settled on a 911 Good Samaritan bill and a related proposal aimed at increasing access to naloxone, as the major part of our harm reduction advocacy for the upcoming session.
Although MATV closed our doors in January after 20 years of service, I remain committed personally to a health-centered approach to drug policy.
Rep. Eric Johnson filed the first 911 Good Samaritan bill during the 2013 legislative session at our behest. This bill encouraged individuals in an overdose situation to call 911 to save a life by offering the caller protection from prosecution, even though illegal drugs may be involved. Although that bill garnered broad support in the House, the deadline came and went as we waited for a floor debate and vote.
Rep. Ryan Guillen pre-filed a very similar bill, HB225, last fall.
Following a meeting with MATV, Rep. Johnson agreed to file a naloxone access bill -- a first for Texas.
Naloxone is a safe and highly effective prescription drug that can provide dramatic results in cases of opiate-related overdose. Naloxone has no psychotropic effects, making abuse unlikely. Unfortunately, this drug is limited in Texas to emergency rooms and EMT professionals.
As HB225 made its way through the legislature, Rep. Guillen expanded the measure to include naloxone access. Rep. Susan King joined Rep. Johnson as a joint author. Rep. Guillen's office is to be credited with moving HB225 quickly and effectively through the process.
A long list of highly credible individuals and organizations came together to support HB225, including representatives of Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mental Health America of Texas, Communities for Recovery and the National Safety Council.
No testimony was offered against the bill at committee hearings.
HB225 was voted out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee with a unanimous vote and passed the House with a 144-4 vote. Senators Kirk Watson and Royce West sponsored and co-sponsored, respectively, HB225, which received a unanimous vote from the Criminal Justice Committee, and passed the Senate on a voice vote.
Why is HB225 important to Texas?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, opiate-related overdose is driving the overdose epidemic. Opiates are prescription painkillers, such as buprenorphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Opioid-related emergency room visits increased 111 percent in the five year period ending in 2008 (from 244,600 to 305,900).
Overdose deaths have increased every year since 2000 and are led only by crashes as the second leading cause of accidental death, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The 150 percent increase in fatal drug overdoses in Texas mirrors the national trend.
Despite the crises, the public remains largely unaware of naloxone. Emergency medical technicians and doctors in hospital emergency rooms have used naloxone for decades.
Although HB225 aims to encourage people to call 911, in cases where the ambulance arrives too late or isn't called at all, people die. Therefore the bill would make available a naloxone prescription directly or through a caregiver to anyone at risk of overdose. Nonprofit organizations serving addicted persons could have access by standing order. Doctors and pharmacists prescribing naloxone and laypersons administering the drug in an overdose situation would be protected from criminal and civil liabilities.
Opiate overdose is the crisis that did not need to happen. Its very existence contradicts the idea that every person is redeemable and every human life is worth saving.
This is our opportunity to diminish the shame and stigma of drug addiction and take steps to reverse the epidemic of drug overdose in our state.
Florida is among the 21 states and the District of Columbia that have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws. Naloxone access has passed in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Louisiana and Georgia are among the states that have pass both.
The Texas Legislature has been wonderfully responsive in passing this important measure virtually without opposition. I want to congratulate again all legislators, organizations and individuals that made the case for HB225 and supported this measure throughout the process. If this bill becomes law, there can be no doubt that many, many lives will be saved. And the supporters made it possible.
HB225 has been sent to Governor Gregg Abbott and awaits his signature.
We all will be holding our breath, hoping the Governor will do right by Texas and sign this bill.