It's not hard to figure out why House Bill 225 passed both the state House and Senate with overwhelming support (140-4 and 30-1, respectively). The non-controversial law would have done two very simple things in order to reduce overdose deaths across the state.
First, a so-called Good Samaritan provision would have shielded people who call 911 to report an overdose from being charged with small-time drug possession – one of the main reasons more overdoses aren't called in until it's too late. Secondly, the bill would have expanded access to an opioid antagonist called naloxone, medicine that can save the life of an overdosing drug user if administered quickly.
And, as soon as the 84th legislative session wrapped Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill.
The “debate” over the provisions of HB 225 go something like this. Supporters say such policies save lives, while not condoning or encouraging drug abuse. The Good Samaritan protection would only have extended to the first person who called 911 for a possible overdose, and would only apply if he or she stuck around to help emergency medical responders and law enforcement. And, under the bill, dealers or anyone holding anything more than a small amount of drugs wouldn't be shielded from prosecution. Expanding access to medicine that could literally save the life of an overdosing person seems like a no brainer – especially when you consider that it's not a controlled substance.
Opponents essentially say this: how are people supposed to know that drugs are bad if we make it less likely that people will die when they do drugs? Seriously, go read the House Research Organization's report on the arguments for and against the bill.
Here's what Abbott said in his veto statement Tuesday:
"HB 225 has an admirable goal, but it does not include adequate protections to prevent its misuse by habitual drug abusers and drug dealers. Although my office suggested amendments to this legislation that would have eliminated the bill's protections for habitual drug abusers and drug dealers — while maintaining protections for minors and first-time offenders — those amendments were not adopted during the legislative process. Consequently, it was necessary to veto this bill.”
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The bill's author, Rio Grande City state Rep. Ryan Guillen, disputes Abbott's version of things, telling the Texas Tribune that the governor's office had assured him that the bill was fine as is before heading to Abbott's desk. "It was an opportunity to save lives," Guillen told the Tribune. "This comes as a surprise."
Good Samaritan laws are already on the books in 24 states and in Washington D.C. Just last month, a report from the Network for Public Health Law said there's reason to believe such laws do in fact reduce overdose deaths; for instance, the report pointed to a survey in Washington State in which 88 percent of drug users reported they'd be more likely to call 911 during an overdose because of a Good Samaritan law that passed there in 2010.
The state legislature's own research arm says that drug related overdoses in Texas have increased 78 percent since 1999. And the overdose problem looks even more harrowing when you consider this stunning joint investigation by the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle earlier this year showing Texas has for years dramatically under-counted overdose deaths, particularly those related to opiates.
Despite Abbott's veto, the provision expanding access to life-saving naloxone may still survive. That provision was wrapped into a separate bill, SB 1462, which is sitting on Abbott's desk.