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John Cornyn
stated on June 11, 2019 in a tweet:
"Texas remains one of the most severely impacted states from drug trafficking. Nearly 3,000 Texans died from drug related deaths in 2017 – with half being overdoses involving opioids."
true half-true
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks at the University of Texas at Austin in June. [CARLOS GARCIA/ AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN] U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks at the University of Texas at Austin in June. [CARLOS GARCIA/ AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN]

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks at the University of Texas at Austin in June. [CARLOS GARCIA/ AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN]

Madlin Mekelburg
By Madlin Mekelburg June 21, 2019

Fact-checking John Cornyn on drug trafficking, drug overdoses

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, posted a series of tweets about drug overdose deaths ahead of a hearing held by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control on federal efforts to counter drug abuse and trafficking.

One of the Republican’s tweets was about his home state of Texas and included an image that showed the number of drug-related deaths in Texas and in the United States in 2017 (3,000 in Texas and 70,000 across the country).

"Texas remains one of the most severely impacted states from drug trafficking," Cornyn said. "Nearly 3,000 Texans died from drug related deaths in 2017 – with half being overdoses involving opioids."

We decided to fact-check this claim, which originated from Cornyn’s opening statement at the Senate hearing.

Understanding Cornyn’s tweet

Drew Brandewie, a spokesman for Cornyn, said the tweet was based on the senator’s opening statement at the Senate Drug Caucus hearing, which included additional context about the first half of the claim.

"My home state of Texas remains one of the most severely impacted states in terms of volume of trafficking and all related mayhem that accompanies the illicit activity," Cornyn said at the hearing, before offering the same statistics included in his tweet.

Cornyn’s tweet doesn’t include the extra note that Texas is one of the most severely impacted states "in terms of volume of trafficking and all related mayhem" — which could include several categories of data. (Brandewie said the number of overdose deaths in the state was an example of related mayhem.)

Instead, Cornyn’s tweet as-written suggests that his claim is just in reference to the number of overdose deaths in the state. This is the perspective we used to fact-check his claim, but we considered the context from the hearing when issuing our ruling.

With this in mind, Cornyn’s figures are accurate, but his ranking of Texas as one of the most impacted states in terms of overdose deaths is based on totals that haven’t been adjusted for population size.

Federal figures are in line with numbers Cornyn shared

The image Cornyn shared with his tweet cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Brandewie confirmed via email that CDC figures were the basis of Cornyn’s tweet.

Numbers published by the agency mirror the figures in Cornyn’s tweet:

In 2017, there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths across the country and 2,989 overdose deaths in Texas.

Looking just at overdose deaths in 2017, opioids were involved in 67.8% of deaths nationwide and 48.8% of deaths in Texas.

Featured Fact-check

While looking at these numbers, it’s worth considering the fact that not all drug overdose deaths are tied to drug trafficking

Courtney Lenard, spokeswoman for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, provided an analysis of mortality data that showed prescription opioids are associated with opioid overdose deaths.

"Correct, not all drug-related deaths are related to illicit drugs," Lenard said. "However, illicit drugs – particularly illicitly-manufactured fentanyl – are largely driving the overdose epidemic in more recent years."

She said separate analyses conducted by the CDC using mortality data and drug seizure data from the Drug Enforcement Administration "have suggested an association between states with high or increasing numbers of fentanyl encounters and increases in overdose deaths involving fentanyl."

How do drug overdose deaths in Texas compare with other states?

Cornyn’s tweet connects the number of drug overdose deaths in Texas in 2017 to the state’s status as one of the states most severely impacted by drug trafficking, but does that check out?

In 2017, there were 2,989 drug-related deaths in Texas, making it the state with the sixth highest number of overdose deaths that year, behind New York (3,921), California (4,868), Florida (5,088), Ohio (5,111) and Pennsylvania (5,388).

But given that Texas is the second most populous state, it makes more sense to consider the rate of drug-related deaths per capita than to compare raw totals by state.

If we look at the number of drug-related deaths per capita by state, Texas lands near the bottom of the list with 10.5 overdose deaths per 100,000 people.

Just three states have a lower number of overdose deaths per capita: North Dakota (9.2), South Dakota (8.5) and Nebraska (8.1).

The state with the most drug-related deaths per capita in 2017 was West Virginia, with 57.8 deaths per 100,000 total population, or 974 overdose deaths in total.

Our ruling

Cornyn said, "Texas remains one of the most severely impacted states from drug trafficking. Nearly 3,000 Texans died from drug related deaths in 2017 – with half being overdoses involving opioids."

Cornyn’s tweet as-written includes accurate figures about drug overdose deaths in Texas and across the country, but his characterization of Texas as one of the "most severely impacted states from drug trafficking" based on these deaths doesn’t take population into account.

Looking at raw figures, Texas was among the states with the most drug-related deaths in 2017. But when we look at the rate of drug-related deaths (which accounts for population), Texas is at the lower end and had fewer drug overdose deaths per capita than 46 other states in 2017.

Also: Cornyn’s tweet originated from comments he made at a Senate hearing, which suggested that he was looking at a range of factors when considering the severity of the impact of drug trafficking in Texas, not just drug overdose deaths.

We rate this claim Half True. 


HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Our Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Stats of the State of Texas, accessed June 17, 2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Drug Overdose Mortality by State, accessed June 17, 2019

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Texas Opioid Summary, March 2019

Email interview, Courtney Lenard, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 18, 2019

Opioid Watch, Opioid Overdose Statistics, June 5, 2018

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Opioid Overdose: Understanding the Epidemic, accessed June 18, 2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reported Law Enforcement Encounters Testing Positive for Fentanyl Increase Across US, accessed June 18, 2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trends in Deaths Involving Heroin and Synthetic Opioids Excluding Methadone, and Law Enforcement Drug Product Reports, by Census Region — United States, 2006–2015, Sept. 1, 2017

Email interview with Drew Brandewie, spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, June 18, 2019

Houston Chronicle, Texas deaths from drug overdoses spiking, August 17, 2018

Texas Standard, What We Learned From This Year’s DEA National Drug Threat Assessment, November 21, 2017

Phone interview with Nathan Jones, Securities Studies professor at Sam Houston State University, June 19, 2019

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Fact-checking John Cornyn on drug trafficking, drug overdoses

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