Motivated by grieving parents, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has made fentanyl crisis a priority

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, center, listens during a roundtable discussion with seven other senators, El Paso officials and others on Jan. 9, 2023, in El Paso. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune, Ivan Pierre Aguirre For The Texas Tribune)

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Horrified by the skyrocketing number of fentanyl-related deaths and motivated by families who lost a child to the dangerous drug, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has made addressing the crisis a priority.

Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced legislation to decriminalize fentanyl test strips and address drug trafficking at the U.S. border with Mexico, where criminal cartels are blamed for producing the vast majority of fentanyl.

He has led public gatherings to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl, which is commonly mixed with other drugs and is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

And he remains haunted by the stories of parents who lost teenagers to fentanyl.

“I feel like a little boy trying to stick his finger in the dike and stop the flow, and I think we're running out of fingers to stick in the dike,” Cornyn said in an interview.

Earlier this year, Cornyn joined a roundtable discussion at a Hays County high school where six students in the school district have died of fentanyl poisoning since last summer. Several of the student’s parents spoke as well.

“Listening to parents who’ve got these young, teenage kids with a lot of potential and full of life — just lose them to this drug — is heartbreaking,” Cornyn said. “And so it's gotten me passionate about trying to do something about it.”

One of those parents was Janel Rodriguez, whose 15-year-old son Noah Rodriguez died of a fentanyl overdose in August 2022. Rodriguez and her husband, Brandon Dunn, started a nonprofit, the Forever 15 Project, in response and have campaigned to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.

Speaking with Cornyn, Rodriguez said, let her raise specific concerns about the fentanyl crisis, including barriers to treatment for youths.

“I felt heard for the first time,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

“It wasn’t just something that went in one ear and out the other,” Rodriguez said, adding that Cornyn’s office followed up on the conversation to get more information and to assure her that the senator was searching for solutions.

Cornyn has helped in other ways, Rodriguez said. When the Forever 15 Project sought to open a booth last month at a national conference of county officials in Austin, Rodriguez was discouraged to learn that it would have cost several thousand dollars. After reaching out to Cornyn, who was speaking at the conference, Rodriguez got word that she could have space for a booth at no cost.

“We just cannot thank him enough for doing that for us. It probably was a small little thing on his end, but to us it was the world,” she said.

Rodriguez and Dunn said they want policies that will address fentanyl-related deaths from multiple angles. Their organization focuses on harm reduction and raising awareness by speaking to high school students and handing out naloxone, an emergency overdose treatment, to parents and teenagers. But Dunn said another important step is addressing drug trafficking at the state’s southern border.

Cornyn said he is trying to balance harm reduction and border security.

Last month, Cornyn introduced bipartisan legislation to clarify federal law by specifying that fentanyl testing strips are not prohibited as drug paraphernalia. Because fentanyl is odorless and tasteless, its presence in other drugs can be unknown and fatal.

The Texas House passed a similar bill in April, but the Senate declined to take action on House Bill 362 despite support for the change from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Critics have argued that test strips could encourage drug use. Cornyn disagreed, saying people who die from fentanyl usually don’t know they’ve consumed the drug if it’s hidden in so-called “look-alike pills.”

Growing Republican support for allowing access to test strips represents a departure from the party’s approach in the past, which focused more on trying to cut off the supply of drugs and less on reducing harm or decreasing risks associated with drug use.

Although Cornyn has embraced test strips as one response, he believes the root of the problem remains drug trafficking across the Mexican border.

“There needs to be a multi-pronged approach to dealing with this, and it starts at the border,” Cornyn said. “Because once the fentanyl gets across the border, then we’ve basically lost the battle.”

Earlier this year, he introduced a bill with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, that would allow the Department of Defense to train Mexican military forces to combat cartels and fentanyl trafficking in Mexico. That concept was included as an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that passed the Senate last month and will head to a conference committee to work out differences with the House-passed version.

Cornyn also introduced bipartisan legislation in July that would initiate a study of how drug trafficking organizations are financed, with the aim of helping the federal government financially stifle their operations.

During an official trip to Mexico in March, Cornyn raised concerns about fentanyl trafficking with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who committed to working with China to stop shipments of fentanyl precursors to Mexico. These precursors are commonly processed by Mexican cartels, which facilitate the smuggling of drugs into the United States. In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized nearly 22,000 pounds of fentanyl at the southern border.

These measures are designed to prevent fentanyl from entering the country, but Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy scholar at Rice University, questioned whether such supply-side policies are effective.

Neill Harris said past efforts, such as a crackdown on prescription opioids, showed that targeting supply had limited impact on drug abuse. “So I just don't really see how trying to crack down on the supply more is going to be different this time,” she said, arguing that such policies also divert resources from preventive programs and treatment.

Cornyn dismissed concerns that border-first drug policies could be ineffective, blaming the Biden administration for failing to secure the border and allowing cartels to continue trafficking fentanyl into the United States.

“The movement of migrants and drugs across the border are connected,” Cornyn said, suggesting that by flooding the border with migrants, cartels enable drugs to get through.

However, most fentanyl brought into the U.S. has been carried by U.S. citizens hired by the cartels. In 2022, 88% of those arrested for fentanyl trafficking were U.S. citizens according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Ultimately, Cornyn said, policymakers must take a comprehensive approach to the fentanyl crisis.

From 2019-22, fentanyl deaths in Texas rose from 317 to 2,161, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“You can save lives. And to me, that's the goal, to save lives,” Cornyn said.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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