Bad Bills

What Are They Smoking?



House Bill 2347 Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco)

Mary J, meet Sally D. Marijuana prohibition has worked so well that state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson wants to criminalize another smokable plant, Salvia divinorum-aka Sally D, aka Maria Pastora, and magic mint-a legal hallucinogenic herb sold over the Internet and in some Texas head shops. Though related, Salvia divinorum isn’t the plant you see growing in yards across Texas.

Prompted by the members of a Waco-area fundamentalist church, Anderson proposes adding the evil Salvia and its psychoactive ingredient, salvinorin A, to a long list of illegal hallucinogens. Possession of just 1 gram of Salvia-about $20 worth of the cheap stuff at Pipes Plus in Austin-would become a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. By contrast, you can be caught with 50 pounds of marijuana and land the same punishment.

Anderson seems to think teenagers have replaced keg parties with Salvia tokes. “Let me say that our No. 1 role, at least in my opinion, is protecting our children, particularly those amongst us that are most vulnerable,” Anderson told the Subcommittee on Enhancements of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. “The whole nature of this drug is untenable and unpredictable, and I think it would be wise if we followed the five other states that declared it illegal.”

Opponents find the legislation a particularly silly expansion of the War on Drugs.

“There is very low risk of abuse for this drug; there is no risk of addiction,” says Tracey Hayes of the ACLU. “From what we can tell, the toxicology of [Salvia] is not dangerous. This is more about criminalizing altered states.”

The biggest deterrent to Salvia abuse is apparently the plant itself. As a trip, users and experts say, Salvia can be about as much fun as smoking clothesline.

“Salvia divinorum is not a pleasant drug,” Hayes says. “Its effects are short-lived but often extremely uncomfortable. It would surprise me if teenagers were abusing salvia.”

Steve Brudniak, a middle-aged psychedelic enthusiast in Austin, compared the 5-to-10 minute experience to “the ride at AstroWorld that makes you dizzy.” It’s something most people try just once or twice for kicks. Indigenous people in Oaxaca, Mexico, have used Salvia for centuries for medicinal purposes, and some American scientists have flagged the herb’s psychoactive ingredient as promising for treating disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

With little else to go on, Salvia-banners have resorted to exaggeration. Anderson says he worries that Salvia-crazed teens could run into “sharp objects” or get behind the wheel of a vehicle. He also claims, without any evidence, that Salvia use “can lead teenagers to depression and suicide.” Michael Campbell, pastor of the church that petitioned Anderson to carry the legislation, advised lawmakers to “make a statement now instead of after we have caskets that are piled up.”

With the forces of hysteria sawing away at the Salvia menace, the real danger is that accurate information parents could communicate to kids about Salvia and other drugs is spoiled. “Once again legislators are considering a bill that will make drugs sexy and desirable for teenagers,” Hayes says.

A more sensible bill in the Senate, SB 1796 by Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, would make the sale of Salvia divinorum to minors a Class C misdemeanor.


House Bill 2832 Rep. Joe Driver (R-Garland)

In 2005, the Legislature unanimously passed a measure creating the Texas Forensic Science Commission, an independent body charged with investigating alleged misconduct or negligence in Texas crime labs. Given the state’s history of using flawed forensic evidence to convict (and probably execute) the innocent, the commission was supposed to help free the wrongly convicted and give jurors reason to trust forensic evidence enough to lock up guilty folks. Some, it would seem, would rather leave stones unturned. Two years after its creation, the commission has yet to accomplish anything.

Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took 10 months to appoint all nine commissioners, and they still can’t do anything because they have no money.

Just in case this penniless panel might manage to peer into the shadows of the criminal justice system, one lawmaker wants to gut the commission’s authority before it ever has a chance to exercise it.

House Bill 2832 by Rep. Joe Driver would put the Department of Public Safety, rather than the commission, in charge of investigations into crime labs. Under the bill, the commission would simply receive complaints of misconduct or negligence, and forward those deemed credible to DPS. If one of DPS’ own labs were under suspicion, DPS would hire an outside investigator. Opponents of the bill say having the DPS sign the paychecks of those who investigate its own labs is a conflict of interest.

“Not only are they not transparent, and inherently conflicted, but there may be political reasons that they can’t report the information that can really solve the problem,” says Stephen Saloom, policy director at the New York-based Innocence Project.

The bill also eliminates the requirement that crime labs report serious allegations of misconduct or negligence to the commission. “[The commission] would be nothing more than a reference desk for DPS,” says Edwin Colfax, Austin-based director of state reform campaigns for the Justice Project. “There would be no duty upon anybody to provide information of any sort to the commission.”

Driver says putting DPS in charge would be cheaper, especially for a commission that has no money to speak of yet. “Since DPS already has the personnel who investigate labs for accreditation purposes … this will be the least expensive and simplest solution we’ve been able to come up with,” Driver said when the bill was heard in the House Law Enforcement Committee, which he chairs. “This bill does not give DPS any authority over the work of the Forensic Science Commission, but it does give them the responsibility to assist.”

The commission is set to receive money in both the House and Senate versions of the budget this session-$175,000 over the next two years in the House and $500,000 in the Senate. Samuel Bassett, a criminal defense lawyer and a Perry appointee on the commission, says $175,000 would be enough for administrative costs, but the $500,000 would be needed for the commission to conduct its own investigations. He says the commission opposes the changes proposed in the bill. “We’d like to be wholly independent of DPS,” Bassett says.

Opponents also say it’s too soon to change a commission that hasn’t been able to do its job yet. “This bill seems like a solution in search of a problem,” Saloom says.

By stripping the commission of its independence, lawmakers also could put Texas at risk of losing federal grant money, opponents say. The Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant program, which gives the state about $1.5 million every two years, requires that states have an independent, external entity to investigate crime labs.

Perhaps some higher-ups aren’t willing to own up to the profound mistakes poor forensic practices have triggered. “Why are you amending a bill for a commission that is clearly a do-nothing commission?” asks Bill Allison, a University of Texas Law professor who testified against the bill. “Don’t you have it just about where you want it anyway?”


HB 699 Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston)

For years, the state’s General Land Office served as a quiet steward for the millions of acres of land Texas owns-most of it under the Gulf of Mexico or in lonely stretches of West Texas. It leased out mineral rights and funneled the money to the Permanent School Fund.

Lately the GLO has been getting into the development business, buying land and setting up development deals in Texas cities. Now it wants to operate even more like a private development company, and is asking lawmakers for permission to keep details of its dealings secret.

House Bill 699 would extend the amount of time the GLO can withhold the terms of a state land sale from the public-and from officials in the city where the land office might be working the deal.

Now state land sales are subject to open records requests as soon as deeds have been transferred to new owners. According to Rep. Sylvester Turner, that places the land office at a disadvantage.

In some complex real estate deals, the deed may transfer before all the terms are final. Or the land office might sell one parcel of land, but still be haggling with potential buyers of other parcels. It doesn’t help if everyone learns the terms of the first deal.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says keeping details of land deals private until the last parcel is sold helps guarantee that he can raise as much money as possible for the Permanent School Fund. Critics of the bill point out that the government isn’t just selling the land it acquires. The land office can function as a developer as well, or enter long-term leases, and when it does, it has huge advantages over private developers: freedom from paying property taxes or obeying local zoning laws. Doing its deals in the sunshine and having to answer to the public has been a sort of trade-off for that governmental heft.

Under HB 699, if the state enters a deal with a developer, choosing to lease the land for a period of years instead of selling it outright, all records of the deal, and what the land might be used for, would stay sealed. This is great news for private companies, which would otherwise have to open their records of deals with the government.

But it would make it tough for cities, which would have no way to find out what the land office plans to do with the properties it owns, San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz told the House Land and Resource Committee at the bill’s February 21 hearing..

“They can conduct their business without public scrutiny,” says Narvaiz, who was surprised to learn last year that the state planned to develop 600 acres it had bought along Interstate 35 and lease space to big-box retail stores. The stores would move out of their current San Marcos locations. Under HB 699, which would close off records until the last subdivided parcel of land is sold, getting that information would be impossible. The GLO could, theoretically, keep the details of a land deal secret forever by leaving one small parcel unsold.

Bo Tanner, the GLO’s deputy commissioner of asset management, told legislators at the bill’s hearing they shouldn’t think of the land office as a developer, but as “purveyors of capital.” The land office was only recently granted the right to be a developer, and there are three places in Texas-the Wal-Mart distribution facility in Baytown, the Triangle Square development in Austin, and the CertainTeed Corp. plant in Sherman-where the GLO has developed the property.

In somewhat of a contradiction, another land office witness, Noelle Letteri, said that in fact, the bill was about helping the GLO in its role as a developer.

In the case of San Marcos, Narvaiz said the GLO’s decision to develop the land along I-35 disrupted a city development plan that was six years in the making. “All we wanted was up-front communication,” Narvaiz said.

Though it passed out of committee on March 14, HB 699 is still sitting in the Calendars Committee, waiting for a date on the House floor.

Your average American black vulture weighs in somewhere between 4 and 5 pounds. Your African Griffon vulture, on the other hand, hovers more in the 15-pound range. They come in all shapes and sizes, but birds of a feather… well, you get it. Observer writers of various weights and sizes continue to circle the Capitol looking for legislative carrion. We crave suggestions for Bad Bills, so e-mail them to [email protected].