Senator Cornyn hosts Dallas roundtable on fentanyl, touts bill to decriminalize test strips – MMHPI – Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute
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Senator Cornyn hosts Dallas roundtable on fentanyl, touts bill to decriminalize test strips

This article was published by Dallas Morning News on September 25, 2023.

Sen. John Cornyn wears a gray rubber bracelet under the cuff of his dress shirt.

It is inscribed with angel wings and the adage, “One Pill Can Kill.” It was given to him by Ryan Vaughn, whose daughter Sienna died from fentanyl poisoning this year. He met Vaughn at a news conference this spring at R.L. Turner High School, where students have overdosed and died from the drug, disguised as common pharmaceuticals like Percocet and Xanax.

“These are some of the most emotional events that I’ve ever been to,” Cornyn told The Dallas Morning News in an exclusive interview Monday following a town hall with area leaders and advocates. “As a parent myself, the idea of losing a child due to … an accidental overdose is such a compelling issue.

“They’re just very sad stories, and I think should be entirely preventable.”

The Texas Republican has prioritized the fight against fentanyl. Monday’s event at an Old East Dallas fire station was at least the third roundtable the U.S. senator has hosted in the area since last fall. This summer, he introduced bipartisan bills that would expand access to naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversal medication, and clarify federal law to legalize fentanyl test strips.

A similar effort to decriminalize test strips — which are considered drug paraphernalia — stalled in the Texas Legislature this spring, despite support from both sides of the aisle. The strips are cheap and can detect whether the synthetic opioid is hidden in drugs. Some state Republicans argued during the legislative session that the strips could encourage drug use.

“Obviously we don’t want our children taking any sort of illegal drug of any kind across the board as a parent,” Cornyn said. “But if they take something that they think is probably not going to kill them, something relatively innocuous, for recreational or other purposes, they need to know whether this pill is contaminated with something that would kill them.”

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot agreed with the senator, adding, “I don’t think that we’re contributing to an addiction problem. … What we’re doing is helping from one direction only solve a much larger problem and save a life here or there. If we can do that, we’re on a winning path.”

When asked how his bill, the Fentanyl Safe Testing and Overdose Prevention Act (STOP), may impact state statutes, Cornyn said federal laws can take precedence.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he told The News. “There’s no one thing that we could do to try to deal with this crisis. But to me, [test strips are] a small thing that we could do to help people protect themselves against inadvertent use of something that will kill them.”

Also at the roundtable were Dallas-Fire Rescue leaders and Becky Tinney from the Recovery Resource Council. They discussed the joint Overdose Response Team initiative, which connects people who have recently overdosed with resources, including rehab and Narcan, one brand of naloxone nasal spray.

Tinney stressed the need for affordable and accessible mental health and substance-abuse treatment. Darilynn Cardona-Beiler with Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute said the two are often intertwined. She advocated for comprehensive, holistic care and dismantling the stigma of drug use.

Cornyn said the country has not adequately dealt with mental health issues among youth. He sees opportunities to improve access to mental health resources and treatment centers. At a similar news conference in the spring, he proposed omnibus legislation that would reauthorize and improve the Drug-Free Communities Support Program to curb youth drug use; expand the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program to dismantle illicit drug operations; and ensure greater access to treatment.

He also advocated Monday for enhanced U.S.-Mexico border security, and slammed President Joe Biden’s administration on the “failure to deal with the border in a realistic and appropriate way.”

Creuzot’s office gave forfeiture funds — seized assets authorities believe were involved in a crime — to the Dallas police department for Narcan and fentanyl education campaigns. City council members Paula Blackmon and Adam Bazaldua, who pushed to get Texas on board with collecting data on overdoses, were also in attendance.

Others on the panel emphasized the need for increased public awareness. Cornyn’s roundtable comes at a time when a fentanyl-related death at a New York day care has made national news. Cornyn lauded The News’ “Deadly Fake” series and other news outlets for helping “get the message out,” adding, “this is a conversation that parents need to have with their children.”

The News is publishing stories every day in the month of September on the fentanyl crisis in North Texas.

Cynthia Pursley, founder and CEO of LIVEGY, lost a stepson to fentanyl. Her organization distributes naloxone to bars and restaurants, fraternities and sororities, parent-teacher groups and outreach organizations.

“By criminalizing test kits and other harm reduction methods, we have removed a few safeguards,” Pursley said. “[The STOP Act] is a safeguard. This is something that’s going to help us, those of us that are the boots-on-the-ground.”

Read the full article on Dallas Morning News’ website.