Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jan 2014
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Nathan Jones
Note: Jones is the Alfred C. Glassell Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug
Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.


Washington's and Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana and
President Barack Obama's recent comments in The New Yorker have
reignited a marijuana legalization debate in Texas. The president's
words were perfectly banal to anyone who has studied drug policy - "I
don't think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol;" I don't think
it's a "good idea;" minorities are disproportionately punished; it's
"a vice," etc.

In fact, academic research consistently finds that the health
consequences of problem marijuana use are far lower than problem
alcohol use. The president was actually understating the case.

Perhaps responding to Obama's comments, Gov. Rick Perry, speaking
Thursday at a forum in Davos, Switzerland, touted a policy of
diverting nonviolent drug offenders into drug courts instead of
incarceration. While this is a step in the right direction, it still
saddles offenders with arrest records, does nothing for those with
legitimate medical needs and does not address the supply issue,
meaning organized crime still profits.

Something else strange is happening in Texas on marijuana policy. With
the exception of speaking against Obama's marijuana comments - which
has more to do with being anti-Obama than any principled stand - few
will speak publicly against marijuana legalization. I know this
because in the last month, two radio producers have contacted me in
their search for guests who can speak intelligently against marijuana
legalization in the state of Texas. They had come up empty-handed
despite their best efforts. I gave them the name of Kevin Sabet, a
former senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug
Control Policy who is now based in Florida. They replied they already
know about him and needed someone from Texas. In one instance, they
asked me to present the "con" argument as a devil's advocate on behalf
of the silent minority.

Support for marijuana legalization is polling at 58 percent nationally
and in Texas. The state also is going through a massive demographic
shift that includes large increases in the Latino population.
According to recent studies by the American Civil Liberties Union,
Latinos and blacks are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted for
marijuana offenses despite using at roughly the same rates as whites.

Nationally, the opinion on marijuana is shifting rapidly. Colorado has
legalized and regulated recreational marijuana use and sales, and
Washington will initiate its system this year. Twenty states and the
District of Columbia have medical marijuana systems, with more likely
to come this year. Even the long-recalcitrant state of New York is now
- - through Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order - establishing a medical
marijuana system. California and Oregon appear poised to legalize
recreational marijuana in the near future. The federal government is
allowing these legalization efforts to play out largely unimpeded.

Internationally, Uruguay is establishing a framework for legal
marijuana, in contravention of the international treaties that
maintain the international prohibition regime. Jamaica is debating
decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana, joining others
such as Portugal and the Netherlands that have done so. A change in
global marijuana policy seems inevitable.

How do we explain the lack of movement on marijuana policy in Texas
despite broad-based societal support for it? The short answer is:
politics. Lacking an initiative system that would allow voters to
place bills on the ballot, legalization in Texas must go through the
Legislature. Gerrymandered districts keep the majority that supports
legalization fragmented. Politicians have to appeal to their bases in
primary elections, forcing them to move to extremes, who, at least in
Texas, tend not to favor legalization of marijuana.

Beyond that, even if legislators author bills favoring legalization,
their opponents can kill those bills before they leave committee or
see that they never get on the calendar for open debate and a vote of
the entire chamber. But over the long term, all of these legal
mechanisms will be futile in the face of overwhelming and increasing

Finally and most telling, public officials are afraid of being labeled
soft on crime, but they also know that the writing about marijuana
legalization is already on the wall. If they talk too forcefully
against marijuana legalization and the politics of the state shift,
they will be politically dead, but if they speak in favor of
legalization too early they can die a short-term political death. So,
we have silence from our leaders.

How long will Texas marijuana legalization take? I predict legislative
pushes by groups supporting marijuana decriminalization,
medicalization and legalization over the next few sessions. They will
lose the first round but establish public awareness that will pave the
way for passage in subsequent attempts.

Many say Texas will be the last place to legalize. I say that
distinction will go to the even more conservative Mississippi.

Get ready for a sea change over the next decade.  
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D