Austin American-Statesman. September 3, 2023.
Editorial: Legalize drug testing strips in special legislative session
Travis County residents got a double dose of worrisome public health news in August, as data showed the county is on pace to lead the state in fentanyl overdose deaths for a second straight year, and another dangerous drug—the veterinary tranquilizer xylazine—was detected in five people who died since late May.
The deceased are, of course, more than numbers. They’re mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, siblings, co-workers and neighbors whose socioeconomic status and other demographics defy categorization. Their needless deaths can be attributed to a number of factors, including an explosion in the amount of fentanyl flowing into the U.S. in recent years and a dire shortage of drug treatment options.
The Legislature wisely appropriated $18 million this year for the purchase of naloxone, an opioid antidote that can reverse an overdose if administered in time. But lawmakers missed a simpler, far less expensive opportunity to help when they failed to legalize drug testing strips that are illogically classified in Texas as illicit drug paraphernalia on par with crack pipes and used syringes.
Drug testing strips cost about a dollar apiece, and can detect the presence of fentanyl, a powerful and sometimes fatal synthetic opioid, and xylazine, a lesser known but potentially deadly depressant that officials say is becoming more prevalent in Travis County and across the U.S. Both substances are sometimes laced into heroin, cocaine, opioid pills and other drugs sold to unsuspecting users, some of whom tragically end up in the county morgue after ingesting them.
Abbott should persuade Republicans to legalize drug testing strips
State lawmakers could get another opportunity to help if Gov. Greg Abbott would back up his stated support for legalizing drug testing strips with action. In December, Abbott reversed his long-term opposition to fentanyl testing strips and urged the legislature to decriminalize them. The Republican-controlled House responded enthusiastically, voting 143-2 to do so in April. But the Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunch drug warrior, never considered the bill and blocked it from reaching Abbott’s desk. Patrick’s office did not respond to an Editorial Board request for comment last week.
Abbott has vowed to call another special legislative session this year so that the legislature can take up his school vouchers proposal. We implore him to add legalization of drug testing strips to the agenda and put his political muscle behind getting it passed. Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and supports legalizing fentanyl testing strips, said in April that some of his GOP colleagues oppose their legalization for fear of encouraging drug abuse. But drug abuse is a reality regardless. It makes no sense to block casual users or hardcore addicts from obtaining an inexpensive strip of paper that could help them test their drugs and avoid an early grave.
Legislative inaction on drug testing strips comes amid an explosion of fatal fentanyl overdoses in Travis County between 2019 and 2022, when the number of deaths grew by tenfold. There have been 127 fentanyl-related deaths reported in the county during the first five months of 2023, a pace that County Judge Andy Brown said last week could result in a record 300 deaths in Travis County this year.
Federal bill could help encourage legalizing testing strips at state level
Instead of resisting calls to legalize drug testing strips, GOP lawmakers should follow the lead of Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican who is helping lead a bipartisan push in Congress to clarify federal law by specifying that the testing strips are not prohibited as drug paraphernalia. The bill’s sponsors say that if approved, it would encourage states to assert the strips’ legality, as well.
“Fentanyl is ravaging Texas communities, and poisonings among children and teenagers have skyrocketed in recent years given the rise in fake prescription pills containing this deadly drug,” Cornyn said in a statement to the Editorial Board last week. “This legislation would help prevent deaths due to fentanyl poisoning by giving people the tools to identify it.”
Legalizing fentanyl testing strips is just one of many steps that local, state and national leaders should take to reduce an epidemic of overdose deaths, but it’s also one of the easiest. And it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Texans shouldn’t have to wait any longer, or endure more needless and heartbreaking overdose fatalities, because lawmakers failed to act.
Dallas Morning News. August 30, 2023.
Editorial: We need a national law for restoring felon voting rights
The Texas standard is a smart place to start.
Former felony offenders most likely will face significant hurdles to a successful reentry to life outside of prison, such as getting a job, renting an apartment or even voting. Establishing a national standard for restoring the right to vote is a reasonable step toward a healthy return to society.
Of the millions of Americans convicted of felonies each year, most serve their sentence and eventually return to communities all across this nation. Yet, despite growing support among some conservatives and progressives, repeated efforts to restore voting rights to ex-convicts who have fulfilled their legal obligations have stalled in Congress amid concerns from some Republicans that restoring rights would favor Democrats and that voting should be reserved for those who have not broken the law.
Politics aside, Americans should agree on this: A person who has fulfilled their debt to society should have an opportunity to rebuild a life as a citizen and voter.
The latest overture to adopt a national standard to restore voting rights comes from U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas. Last month, Crockett introduced the Democracy Restoration Act to restore voting rights in federal elections to all released felons regardless of parole or probation status, and regardless of state laws.
Although well-intentioned, Crockett’s proposal is problematic. A better position would be to require offenders to fully satisfy parole, probation and other circumstances of their sentences before voting rights are restored.
More than a century ago, the Supreme Court affirmed the right to vote as “ preservative of all rights.” However, nearly 80 million Americans, or about one-third of the total U.S. adult population, have some kind of criminal record, including more than 19 million Americans who have a felony conviction on a permanent record. And due to restrictive state laws, roughly 5 million people are unable to vote after they have left incarceration.
It’s time to end the patchwork of state laws that impose different requirements and prohibitions on voting rights. In Texas, felons are prohibited from voting while in prison, on parole or on probation, but can reclaim their voting rights if they fulfill all post-release obligations. That is a reasonable standard and one that a federal law might mirror.
However, some states permanently strip a person of voting rights or force them through a series of complicated steps such as a governor’s pardon, an additional waiting period or other requirements to complete their sentence. And at the other extreme, a person incarcerated in Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., will be able to vote even while in prison.
Voting is a key civil right in a functioning democracy that should be returned to those who are trying to rebuild a life.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. September 1, 2023.
Editorial: Sex, lies and videotape: Evidence for Paxton impeachment is more compelling than ever
It’s no secret that average folks can’t stand most politicians, even local ones. One of the reasons why is that some live like arrogant reality-TV stars, obsessed with power, materialism and sex. No, we’re not talking about “The Real Housewives of Plano.” It’s the latest revelations in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment.
We’ve been awaiting his trial date, Sept. 5, after the Texas House, including most Republicans, sent more than 20 articles of impeachment to the Senate. In the meantime, Paxton’s lawyers have worked hard to perpetuate the narrative that the charges are so flimsy and petty that most should be dropped.
Another argument circulating about Paxton, especially among conservatives outside Texas, is that surely his pending trial is the result of a “sham impeachment” process that wouldn’t hold up in any ordinary court of law.
Now, House managers have called everybody’s bluff. New documents — 150 exhibits numbering almost 4,000 pages — published in the case demonstrate that Paxton’s upcoming trial is undoubtedly necessary. In fact, it’s all much worse than many people probably thought.
It should go without saying, but senators must not vote to short-circuit the trial, as Paxton seeks. And Republican lawmakers in particular must resist pressure, from Texas or beyond, to reach a conclusion before vetting the evidence. That includes local Republican Sens. Kelly Hancock of Tarrant County and Drew Springer of Muenster, both identified as possible targets of an organized campaign to push for acquittal votes.
Not even a soap opera based in Texas could be as juicy as the details featured in these exhibits. There are depositions, e-mails, videos and texts. The bevy of documents provides exact details on the allegations that Paxton abused his power to advance the interests of himself, his friends and the woman with whom he was having an affair.
As real estate investor Nate Paul was being investigated by federal authorities, none of this mattered to Paxton. Staffers warned the AG that Paul was a liar, a thief and a walking red flag. But Paxton bent over backwards to use the resources and power of his office to hire a special prosecutor whom he authorized to look into Paul’s corporate foes and FBI officials who had raided his home. How nice.
The document dump shows that, like two college kids away from home for the first time, Paxton and Paul created a joint Uber account to use to travel to Paul’s house and for Paxton to see his paramour. “Dave P” will forever be known as Paxton’s burner account — sorry to any real Dave P’s out there. It’s going down in Texas history, and not in a great way.
Paul even hired Paxton’s lover to work for him, according to an employment contract from his loyal bud, our attorney general. How legal and fair. Oh, and this is on top of new details that show Paxton received about $20,000 worth of upgrades on his Austin home thanks to Paul funding it, presumably as a bribe.
What Paxton would have you believe is a tiny, petty impeachment sham is turning into a Texas-sized scandal. If it wasn’t the attorney general, in a state of — you know — law and order, it would be just another hilarious episode of one of those over-the-top money and sex-obsessed reality shows.
Unfortunately, the “Real Allegations of Ken Paxton” doesn’t have a great ring to it, and the damage this could do to the credibility of the state and, if senators don’t take it seriously, the Republican Party could take years to undo the mess.