Joshua Gillihan loved to ride dirt bikes, play video games, and spend time with his friends and family. He was 14 years old and had just finished the first week of his freshman year at Bridgeland High School when he died from fentanyl poisoning last August.

“It’s just the worst thing that could ever happen. It was a complete shock,” his mother, Kim Gillihan, told Community Impact, noting her son thought he was taking a Percocet. “We had talked about drugs a lot. ... We talked about all kinds of things, but we didn’t talk about fentanyl [and how] fentanyl’s in everything because we didn’t know.”

She said she believed the misconception that fentanyl wasn’t an issue in the suburbs. Had she known and been able to inform her son about the dangers, she thinks he may still be alive.

Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in the 18-45 age group nationally, and it kills one person every nine minutes, according to data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Preliminary data from the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas shows Harris County had 568 fentanyl-related deaths in 2022, up 92% from 2020. The HIDTA program was established by Congress in 1988 to assist law enforcement agencies in addressing drug threats regionally.

The CDC states pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that may be prescribed for pain treatment and is 50-100 times more potent than morphine. While this form of fentanyl may be abused, most fentanyl-related deaths in the U.S. can be tied to illegally made fentanyl, which is sold through illegal drug markets.

“Drug traffickers are also flooding our communities with fentanyl disguised in the form of fake prescription pills,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Feb. 15. “These fake pills are made and marketed by drug traffickers to deceive Americans into thinking that they are real, diverted prescription medications. In reality, these fake prescription pills are highly addictive and are potentially deadly.”

One of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top seven emergency items this legislative session was targeting the fentanyl crisis, he said at a State of the State address in February. Bills filed this session aimed to decriminalize fentanyl test strips and increase penalties for fentanyl distribution, among other strategies.

“Now, the proliferation of illicitly manufactured fentanyl being found in opioid and nonopioid drugs poses life-threatening risks to anyone who uses a chemical substance. Many people are not aware they are taking fentanyl and would not take it if they were aware of its presence,” Mike Lee, chief deputy of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said in a comment for the House Committee on Public Health hearing March 13.

How we got here

The DEA seized more than 50 million fake pills and 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2022, which Milgram said amounts to enough lethal doses for the entire U.S. population.

Mexico-based drug cartels purchase precursor chemicals from China to mass produce fentanyl, which is pressed into fake prescription pills, Milgram said. Those pills cost about 10 cents per pill to make and are then brought into the U.S. and distributed for about $10-$30 per pill.

After campaigning for stricter border control, U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, R-Willis, was elected in November to represent the southwest portion of Cy-Fair as well as parts of Montgomery, San Jacinto and Polk counties. Citing Houston HIDTA data, he said his district is projected to see 650 fentanyl-related deaths this year as drug use becomes more prevalent, especially among youth.

“It’s a problem we don’t need to have. ... It’s these quiet little sleepy towns like I grew up in—Willis, Conroe, Cypress, Magnolia, Coldspring—where it lives and it breathes, and these babies are dying,” he said. “And I personally don’t think we’re being aggressive enough.”

For several years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cy-Fair ISD averaged 550 annual drug-related discipline reports. That number shot up to 1,216 in 2021-22, the first full year back on campuses since, according to discipline data reported to the state.
Franklin Sampson, CFISD director of guidance and counseling, said the district’s in-house substance use intervention counselor holds informational events for parents and students. CFISD students struggling with substance abuse also have access to free telehealth resources.

“I know how many drugs these kids are taking in general,” Kim Gillihan said. “And I just want to try to educate people since we weren’t educated.”

Abbott announced the launch of a $10 million multimedia campaign to raise awareness about fentanyl at his April 6 “One Pill Kills” summit in Austin. He also said Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal medication, would be immediately provided to law enforcement in every county in Texas.

Funding for the Narcan distribution and multimedia campaign comes from multiple settlements Texas is receiving from opioid manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.

Combatting the crisis

State Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, filed House Bill 362 to decriminalize fentanyl test strips. The strips are used to check if other drugs contain fentanyl, but they are currently considered drug paraphernalia under Texas law. The bill passed the House on April 11 but stalled in the Senate as of the end of the regular session May 29.

“The ability to know that whatever you think it is, is actually laced with fentanyl is in most cases the difference between life and death,” Oliverson said during the March 13 hearing.

HB 6, filed by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, would classify fentanyl overdoses as poisonings on death certificates, allowing prosecutors to charge drug dealers with murder. It passed both chambers and was sent to Abbott’s desk as of May 24.

The Texas Senate passed its own version of this measure in Senate Bill 645 on March 15. Filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the bill would make it a first-degree felony to manufacture or distribute fentanyl that leads to someone’s death. It was left pending in the House at the end of the regular session.

SB 629, filed by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, successfully made it to the governor's desk by the end of the session. If signed into law, it will require Texas reached and other public school staff to be trained in administering Narcan.

At the county level, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced in an April 19 news release the creation of a major narcotics unit within her office, which will work with law enforcement to ensure fentanyl traffickers receive “the most serious punishments,” including murder charges when appropriate.

“My staff meets nearly every day with the victims and families of this fentanyl epidemic, and these meetings are heartbreaking,” Ogg said in the news release. “I am confident we can save lives by targeting the profiteers of death for the most severe punishment the law allows and diverting addicts into treatment instead of prison.”

While ongoing efforts to reduce fentanyl overdoses can’t bring back Kim Gillihan’s son, she said she hopes his story can be used to help educate other families. She urges parents to talk with their kids about fentanyl.

Hannah Norton contributed to this report.