The War on Opioids: Murder Charges Possible in Texas

Stamp used to mark opioids as dangerous products

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According to The Texas Tribune, the Texas Senate recently and unanimously passed a bill that bolsters the legislature’s so-called war on opioids. Senate Bill 645 leaves an opening for charging those who produce, sell, or distribute fentanyl with murder, which aligns with the governor’s legislative priorities.

This bill is a bold move in a state that already takes an exceptionally hard stance in relation to drugs. If you are facing a drug charge in Texas, do not wait to discuss your claim with a dedicated Killeen criminal defense attorney with considerable experience successfully guiding challenging cases like yours toward favorable resolutions.

Senate Bill 645

Senate Bill 645 does not end with the proposed murder charges. If the bill is passed into law, the following changes would also apply to drug charges:

  • The penalty for making or distributing less than a gram of fentanyl would be elevated from a state jail felony to a third-degree felony.

  • If making or distributing less than a gram of fentanyl leads to an overdose fatality, the charge would be increased to a second-degree felony.

  • Penalties for manufacturing, possessing, or distributing larger amounts of fentanyl would be harsher, leading to 10 years to life in prison and fines of up to $100,000.

  • A charge related to possession of more than 400 grams of fentanyl would be a first-degree felony with a sentence of at least 15 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

There is an exception built into the bill that excludes doctors and medical professionals who prescribe fentanyl to their patients as a necessary treatment – generally for the management of intense pain.

The Bill’s Author

Senator Joan Huffman authored the “Combating Fentanyl Bill” in question. In this bill, she asserts, “We have tragically learned the extent of how dangerous fentanyl is and how even under 1 gram is so dangerous. It’s a fact that fentanyl is flooding our borders. It is absolutely without a doubt killing our citizens on a daily basis. And it’s time that we take a comprehensive approach to combat this.” However, not everyone agrees with her approach.


The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reports that 42 percent of the pills that test positive for fentanyl contain at least 2 mg of the drug, which is a potentially deadly dose – depending upon the individual’s size, past use, and tolerance. Further, Fentanyl – and other synthetic opioids – are the primary source of overdose deaths in this country.

Consider the following statistics that apply from January 31, 2020, to January 31, 2021:

  • Opiate-related overdose deaths rose by more than 38 percent.

  • Overdose deaths precipitated by synthetic opioids – primarily fentanyl that was illicitly manufactured – rose by more than 56 percent.

  • Synthetic opioids are thought to be the “primary driver” in the overall increase in overdose fatalities.

Opiate-related drug charges are very serious and they have the potential to become even more damaging to your future. If you’re facing drug charges of any kind, contact a Killeen criminal defense attorney right away.

The Tough-on-Drugs Position

America has been burned by its war on drugs stance before, and many drug policy experts believe Texas’s current efforts are headed in the same direction. The stance adopted by the governor and state lawmakers is increasing the associated criminal penalties, but criminalizing drug users does little by way of offering them the help with addiction they likely need.

Further, other states’ attempts to charge those who manufacture or distribute fentanyl have – in most cases – backfired spectacularly, often leading to increased overdose fatalities and to criminal charges against the family members and friends who happened to be present when the overdose victim took the fentanyl.

Fentanyl Overdoses in Texas

In the State of Texas, yearly fatal fentanyl overdose rates rose nearly 400 percent from 2019 to 2021. From July 2021 to July 2022, more than 5,000 people in the State of Texas are considered to have lost their lives to fentanyl.

Fentanyl overdose deaths in Texas have garnered considerable attention nationwide as news programs focus on the many young people who have succumbed to the drug – often believing they were taking something far less potent.

Legal Complications

If Bill 645 passes, there are plenty of legal complications to contend with before anyone could conceivably be charged with the crime of murder, which requires the element of criminal intent.

Those who manufacture drugs like fentanyl are rarely the same people who distribute them. Therefore, prosecutors will need to prove that those distributing or selling the drug in question knew that it contained fentanyl.

The bill’s author comments on this challenge by sharing that the path toward second-degree felony is likely to be more straightforward, but “extraordinary cases” could arise in which this law would pave the way toward first-degree felony charges.

Huffman also tweaked the bill to exclude deaths from being classified as “fentanyl poisonings” due to the detection of fentanyl in the person’s system when there is another clear cause for the person’s death.

It’s clear that drug-related charges are complicated, and they have the potential to become even more so. As such, don’t face your drug charges alone. Contact a Killeen criminal defense attorney for the legal guidance you need.

Senate Bill 1319

Another bill authored by Huffman, Senate Bill 1319, was also approved by the Senate. If it proceeds to law, it will require law enforcement, first responders, and others who respond to emergency situations to share the basic overdose information with a digital overdose mapping system that is maintained by a governmental agency.

These tools are used in many areas throughout the nation to track where overdoses happen most frequently and to help ensure that the necessary resources are deployed to these areas.

Many believe that this brand of tracking is necessary to help stem overdoses in the state. However, some state entities are currently barred by HIPPA from sharing overdose information.

The bill in question would bypass this concern – allowing emergency responders to share limited elements of the overdose information, such as the following information, without risk of legal reprisals:

  • The date and time of the overdose

  • The approximate location of the overdose

  • Whether an opioid antagonist, such as naloxone, was employed

  • The patient’s outcome

The victim’s personal information, however, cannot be reported. Both of the bills discussed above passed unanimously in the Senate and will now head to the Texas House.

1.5 Million Opioid Pills Distributed

To better understand the scope of the opioid problem in Texas, review this case in which nine Texans were arrested on federal charges in Houston earlier this year for allegedly being involved in the unlawful distribution of 1.5 million opioid pills – along with other controlled substances.

Pill Mills

According to the Department of Justice, two of the involved men are charged with operating pill-mill pharmacies as fronts for obtaining high-test opioids in immediate-release pill form – allegedly selling the pills on the black market to traffickers like some of the other arrestees, all without ever involving prescriptions, doctors, or patients.

The pill-mill kingpins are charged with laundering proceeds through a range of real estate deals and bank accounts – purchasing high-ticket luxury items along the way. Some of the allegedly ill-gotten gains include a Rolls Royce, a Lamborghini, and a Bentley, to name but a few.

The Involvement of Pharmacies

Three of the other involved individuals, including a licensed pharmacist, allegedly used pharmacies to illegally distribute and dispense drugs, including about half a million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills. Opioid potentiators, which are reported to enhance the opioid high, were also reported to have been distributed in bulk.

The federal government alleges that several Texas pharmacies were controlled by the drug traffickers in question, and of these, a handful have voluntarily surrendered their DEA registration numbers. Without a DEA number, a pharmacy cannot legally purchase controlled substances like pharmaceutical opioids.

Charges Levied

The charges involved include the following offenses:

  • The illegal distribution of Schedule II drugs

  • The illegal distribution of Schedule IV drugs

  • Money laundering

These are all very serious charges that require careful legal guidance. If you’re facing any of these charges, don’t hesitate to reach out to a Killeen criminal defense attorney.

Basic Drug Charges in Texas

The State of Texas follows the rest of the country and the federal government by dividing illegal drugs into penalty groups.

Penalty Groups in Texas

In Texas, the penalty groups are divided as follows:

  • Group 1, which includes fentanyl, heroin, ketamine, meth, hallucinogens, and cocaine

  • Group 1-A, which includes LSD

  • Group 2, which includes PCP and other cannabinoids, hashish, and ecstasy

  • Group 3, which includes Ritalin, benzodiazepines, Valium, and Xanax

  • Group 4, which includes opioids and opiates that are not included in another group

Marijuana, for all intents and purposes, is categorized in a class all its own.

When It Comes to Marijuana

While the State of Texas has by no means adopted the far more relaxed stance toward marijuana that many other states have, it does treat marijuana charges somewhat differently. Consider the following possession charges related to marijuana:

  • Possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor.

  • Possession of from 2 to 4 ounces of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor.

  • Possession of from 4 ounces to 5 pounds of marijuana is a state jail felony.

  • Possession of from 5 to 50 pounds of marijuana is a third-degree felony.

  • Possession of from 50 to 2,000 pounds of marijuana is a second-degree felony.

  • Possession of more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana is a first-degree felony.

Texas did recently legalize hemp products, which have lower THC levels. (THC is the component associated with marijuana’s high.) In so doing, the state has made it far more difficult to prove low-level marijuana charges.

The test required to prove THC content is costly and time consuming. It is also virtually impossible to accurately distinguish marijuana from hemp without testing. As a result, many areas of the state are not making arrests for possession of small amounts.

This laxity should in no way encourage you to let your guard down in the State of Texas when it comes to illegal drugs. Texas is unpredictable in relation to enforcement, and the fact is that even a tiny amount of marijuana remains illegal.

The Charge

Depending upon the situation, any of the following charges can apply to possession of illegal drugs in Texas:

  • A Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time but can lead to fines of up to $500

  • A Class B misdemeanor, which carries jail time of up to 180 days and fines of up to $2,000

  • A Class A misdemeanor, which carries jail time of from 180 days to 1 year and fines of up to $4,000

  • A state jail felony, which carries jail time of from 180 days to 2 years and fines of up to $10,000

  • A third-degree felony, which carries a prison sentence of from 2 to 10 years and fines of up to $10,000

  • A second-degree felony, which carries a prison sentence of from 2 to 20 years and fines of up to $10,000

  • A first-degree felony, which carries a prison sentence of from 5 to 99 years and fines of from $50,000 to $250,000

The proposed “Combating Fentanyl Bill” discussed above – if made into law – would likely bounce many drug-related charges to higher penalty classifications.

Factors that Affect Charges and Penalties

The penalties that relate to the drug in question are predicated on a range of variables that include all the following factors:

  • The drug penalty group

  • The specific drug in question

  • The amount of the drug involved

  • Whether aggravating factors are involved

  • Whether or not it is a first offense

Every drug charge is a serious charge in the State of Texas, and skilled legal guidance is always advised.

Discuss Your Case with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a trusted criminal defense attorney who is passionate about providing his clients with the fierce legal defense to which they are entitled.

Our impressive legal team is committed to skillfully advocating for your legal rights – in focused pursuit of your case’s best possible conclusion. We are here to help you, so please do not hesitate to reach out and contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 today for more information about what we can do for you.

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