Pubdate: Fri, 24 Jan 2014
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Page: A1
Copyright: 2014 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Authors: James Pinkerton and Kolten Parker


Legalization Rejected, but Lesser Sentences, Drug Courts

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that he favors decriminalizing
marijuana use and lessening punishment for minor offenders as the
nation moves toward a more moderate approach to pot use and two states
have legalized the drug.

Perry's comments surprised some, since the governor has repeatedly
criticized the Obama administration for not stepping up border
enforcement to counter the power of Mexican drug trafficking cartels.
Perry has also supported legislation that would mandate drug testing
for Texans seeking unemployment benefits or public housing.

But each state has the right to choose its path on how to deal with
marijuana, he said, while defending Colorado and Washington's decision
to legalize the drug. "As governor, I have begun to implement policies
that start us toward a decriminalization" by introducing alternative
"drug courts" that provide treatment and softer penalties for minor
offenses, Perry said during an international panel on drug
legalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos,

It's the first time the governor, who's voiced support for drug courts
in the past, took a position on decriminalization in Texas.

Local law enforcement leaders in Houston had differing reactions to
Perry's comments.

Harris DA supportive

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, who as a judge
presided over a drug court, backed Perry's advocacy of offering
rehabilitation and community supervision.

"I echo Governor Perry's support for drug counseling and lesser
sentences for marijuana users in Texas," according to a statement
released by her office. "Our goal is to stop the revolving door
process where a drug offender gets out of jail, starts using again,
only to go back to jail where he or she will spend even more time."

Anderson added: "Our hope is to keep people out of jail by getting
them help."

On Monday, Anderson said President Barack Obama was "reckless" for
comparing marijuana use to smoking tobacco and for saying he didn't
think marijuana was more dangerous than alcohol.

The governor's spokeswoman confirmed that Perry is staunchly opposed
to legalization of marijuana because of the dangers that have been
associated with the drug, but is committed to policies that would
lower the punishment for its use in order to keep smokers out of jail.

"Legalization is no penalty at all, whereas decriminalization doesn't
necessarily mean jail time (for minor possession offenses). It means
more of a fine or counseling or some sort of program where you don't
end up in jail but in a rehabilitative program," said Lucy Nashed, a
spokeswoman for Perry.

"The goal is to keep people out of jails and reduce recidivism - that
kind of thing," she said, adding that decriminalization excludes
violent offenders and dealers.

In Texas, an offender with less than 2 ounces of marijuana can be
sentenced to up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. An
offender with more than 5 pounds faces up to two years in jail.

Drug courts, which provide supervision and intense rehabilitation for
some convicted drug users in lieu of jail time, were passed in Texas
in 2001 by a group of Democratic lawmakers.

HPD union wary

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said police
will enforce whatever drug laws Texas legislators pass, but stressed
that marijuana should be treated the same as alcohol.

"Our concern is many criminals we arrest are under the influence of
alcohol or some kind of drug, including marijuana," Hunt said. "We
don't want to send a signal that the use of marijuana is not dangerous
and does not impair an individual."

Bills have been introduced in the Legislature to reduce penalties and
allow the sale of medicinal marijuana over the last six years but have
not made it out of committee.

In the past, Perry has discussed his opposition to legalization of
marijuana but voiced his support for the 10th amendment and states'
rights to legalize the drug, which he highlighted at the forum Thursday.

Perry did not address medicinal use of marijuana during the

Nashed said he has discussed support of drug courts in the past.
However, the governor specifically has not gone as far as supporting
decriminalization in public comments.

Justice coalition happy

"I am shocked," said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas
Criminal Justice Coalition, adding that Perry killed a drug treatment
bill the organization supported in 2007.

"I am very happy to hear the governor supports a more rehabilitative

More than 15,000 people are imprisoned in Texas correctional
facilities for sole possession of drugs, Yanez-Correa said.

Perry announced in 2013 that he would not seek re-election to his
office. He has not confirmed whether he will run for president again.
Perry sought the Republican nomination in 2012.

Perry made the comments on a panel that included former United Nations
Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Colombian President Juan Manuel. 
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