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Two congressmen are trying to pass a bill to protect U.S. Border Patrol agents from a problem drug policy experts say doesn’t exist: overdoses caused by secondhand fentanyl exposure.
On Monday, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, and his Republican colleague in the House, Dave Joyce, from Ohio, introduced the Prevent Exposure to Narcotics and Toxics (PREVENT) Act to provide U.S. Border Patrol officers with “containment devices to prevent secondary exposure to fentanyl.”
A news release about the bill says Border Patrol agents are at risk of exposure to drugs like fentanyl “through inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, contact with needles, or mucous membrane contact via the nose, eyes and mouth.” But Lucas Hill, a clinical assistant professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Texas at Austin, said the bill perpetuates a myth that law enforcement officers are at risk of overdosing by merely being in the presence of fentanyl.
He said there has never been a credible case showing that a first responder overdosed on fentanyl due to passive exposure.
“It is not possible to overdose due to passive exposure to fentanyl,” he said. “So getting some fentanyl powder on your skin or even under your nails or rubbing a little bit accidentally onto your eye or being in the vicinity of a large amount and breathing in some that may be floating around—none of that is possible.”
Hill said that if the bill were to pass, it would be an “allocation of resources that could go toward harm reduction” and evidence-based treatments.
But the myth around fentanyl exposure for police officers is pervasive. Recently, Hill and hundreds of other drug policy experts signed an open letter calling for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to remove a video that claims to be showing an officer who fell backward after being exposed to fentanyl.
“It's all very clearly not an opioid overdose,” Hill said. “A panic attack tends to be the most reasonable and likely explanation for that.”
The press release said the bill would equip border guards with containment devices that provide “a controlled, negative pressure environment to further reduce exposure to hazardous substances.” Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin, said that framing co-opts clinical language but isn’t relevant when it comes to fentanyl.
“We use negative pressure chambers to isolate people with tuberculosis,” she said. “There's a very specific time when you need that, and fentanyl isn't it.”
Zagorski also said that by insinuating fentanyl and immigration are intrinsically related, the PREVENT Act will further demonize people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“As the crisis at the southern border continues to spiral out of control, so does the flow of deadly drugs into the United States,” Rep. Joyce said in the news release about the bill.
“Thankfully, the vigilance of our CBP officers has prevented nearly 10,000 pounds of fentanyl from flooding into American communities. It’s critical that these men and women have the tools and training necessary to do their jobs as safely as possible amid this record-breaking surge of drug trafficking.”
Zagorski said that conflating the issues of migration and drugs is “a cynical way to leverage” fears around both the border and the fentanyl crisis. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also used fentanyl as a justification for tightening the border.
“It's frustrating to see after all of these decades that we are still going with these really easy reactionary things and using something that's completely unrelated to immigration to basically paint a convenient narrative about immigrants,” Zagorski said.
Both Zagorski and Hill said the legislation positions law enforcement as the vulnerable population in the drug war, instead of doing anything to help the people actually dying of fentanyl overdoses. Last year was the worst year on record for fatal overdoses in the U.S., with 93,000 deaths, more than two-thirds of which involved opioids.
“What people really need is a regulated, trustworthy, consistent supply of drugs because we've been trying hard for, at this point, a good 50 years to eliminate drug use in the U.S. And it hasn't changed at all,” Zagorski said.
She said advocates in Texas have pushed for a number of reforms that have been shut down, including the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia and legalization of clean-syringe programs.
She also said it’s very difficult to access methadone and addictions treatment in the state, in part because Texas turned down Medicaid expansion.