Pubdate: Fri, 30 Mar 2007
Source: Austin Chronicle (TX)
Column: Reefer Madness
Copyright: 2007 Austin Chronicle Corp.
Author: Jordan Smith
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


For the second legislative session in a row, Rep. Harold Dutton, 
D-Houston, has offered a modest proposal to downgrade the criminal 
penalties associated with possession of small amounts of pot. 
Currently, possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is a class B 
misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail, meaning getting 
popped with even a single joint - or, worse, mere seeds and stems - 
could net a six-month stay in the county lockup.

With criminal justice costs spiraling and the jail and prison 
population bulging, this possible punishment seems, even on its face, 
a tad crazy.

So Dutton proposes that low-level possession be downgraded to a class 
C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine.

All things considered, Dutton's done a fairly good job of explaining 
the practical merits of his bill: It frees up law enforcement to deal 
with more serious crimes, as well as easing jail congestion while 
still providing a significant criminal penalty.

He's evenhanded and steady and has kindly rebuffed any suggestion 
that he's a pawn in the "well-orchestrated" marijuana lobby plot to 
legalize pot, as a witness at the March 20 House Criminal 
Jurisprudence Committee hearing on the bill, House Bill 758, suggested.

Aside from the fact that "well-orchestrated marijuana lobby" is, in 
large part, an oxymoron, it is also simply an asinine 
characterization that does nothing but suggest, again, that the 
government's long-standing propaganda regarding pot has been creepily 
successful. Indeed, I watch these sorts of hearings with a certain 
degree of angst: On the one hand, I'm excited to see more and more 
people come around to the idea that perhaps incarcerating casual pot 
smokers isn't good public policy - and is a serious strain on 
law-enforcement time and resources, as Bexar Co. Sheriff Dennis 
McKnight pointed out when speaking in favor of Dutton's measure. On 
the other hand, I know that at some point the witness statements will 
shift from being grounded in facts and will devolve into the 
condescending drugs-are-bad lectures - such as the one offered by 
licensed drug counselor Mitchell Moore, whose looking-down-the-nose 
tone in bashing Dutton's bill was enough to make your ears bleed.

According to Moore, the government's assessment of the scourge of pot 
is the only view to be trusted, even in the face of research 
revealing - surprise, surprise! - that the feds, particularly the 
White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy, have a 
special way of massaging statistics to provide the desired outcome.

Regardless of what the research tells us about such measures - 
including empirical evidence from states that have already downgraded 
simple pot-possession penalties, similar to what Dutton is proposing 
- - Moore and fellow anti-bill witness Stephanie Haynes, from Save Our 
Society From Drugs, promised the committee that passing Dutton's 
measure would, "without a doubt," Haynes said, lead to an increase in 
drug use and, therefore, to a rise in "delinquent behavior." Clearly, 
these people have never smoked pot.

But really, at the core, this bill is not about whether pot smoking 
is good or bad; it's a practical bill that seeks to strike a balance 
between criminal enforcement (and sound fiscal policy) and 
fundamental fairness (and the guarantee of justice). As Dutton 
pointed out, it appeared the bill's detractors hadn't even read the 
measure in its entirety before standing at the microphone and 
spouting off about how pot will cause the downfall of society - the 
kids'll be drugged out, they warned - and, Haynes said, we shouldn't 
forget about the "connection" between smoking pot and contracting 
schizophrenia (as if it were as easy as all that - like catching a 
cold). In fact, in response to legislators' concerns last session 
about what possible "message" this sort of measure might send to the 
kiddos, Dutton added a provision that would require anyone popped for 
minor possession to go through a drug-awareness-education class in 
addition to paying the class C misdemeanor fine.

In the end, Dutton handled the hysterics of his bill's detractors in 
a most statesmanlike manner.

At the end of the day, he said, he believes that handing out jail 
time for possession of as small an amount of pot as a single 
marijuana seed is "too harsh a punishment." But, if the point of the 
bill's foes is that punishment for pot possession isn't stiff enough, 
he said, then, "why not go back to making them all felonies?" 
Remember: There was a time when possession of a joint or two could 
earn a life sentence behind bars - "we could always go back to that, 
I suppose," he said. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake