Pubdate: Fri, 14 Mar 2014
Source: Austin Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Austin Chronicle Corp.
Author: Jordan Smith


Momentum Builds for Lone Star Legalization of Marijuana

For more than a decade, Austin Democratic state Rep. Elliott Naishtat 
has brought to his Capitol colleagues a modest proposal: Create an 
affirmative defense to prosecution on pot possession charges for 
seriously ill Texans.

For seven sessions now - that's every other year since 2001 - he's 
either authored or sponsored a measure that would give bona fide 
patients - those suffering, for example, from AIDS, multiple 
sclerosis, glaucoma, cancer - the ability to have a judge decide if a 
criminal charge for pot possession should be dismissed.

Naishtat's proposal would also protect doctors who suggest their 
patients try marijuana as medicine to alleviate the debilitating 
symptoms of disease. And he's been clear, at every turn, that this is 
all the bill would do. He hasn't suggested that the state legalize 
medical marijuana - as 20 states and the District of Columbia have 
done - let alone that Texas follow the lead of Colorado and 
Washington and legalize marijuana outright for all uses. "I try to be 
moderate," he says, and proposed this bill, specifically, because "I 
thought it would have a snowball's chance." That isn't exactly how 
it's played out. The measure has only three times been assigned a 
committee hearing - once by the House Criminal Jurisprudence 
Committee (back in 2001) and then by the House Public Health 
Committee, in 2005 and again in 2013. No version of the bill has ever 
received a vote in committee, let alone made it to the House floor 
for consideration.

It's frustrating, certainly, but Naishtat is unsurprised and remains 
undaunted by the repeated roadblocks. In part, that's because he 
knows what lawmakers say to him in hushed tones on the floor: Sure, 
what you're doing makes sense, and it's the right thing to do, but I 
can't vote for it. "I have members come up to me and say, 'I know 
what you're trying to do here, but I can't vote for it because my 
cousin in Harlingen is a deputy sheriff,' or because 'I can't look 
weak on crime. Maybe in another six years.'"

Yet if recent poll numbers are to be believed, it shouldn't take 
anywhere near six years to get this done. According to a September 
2013 poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, a majority of 
all Texas voters - men and women, Democrats, Republicans, and 
independents - support legalizing medi-pot. In a Texas Tribune/UT 
poll released in February, 49% of voters favor making at least small 
amounts of pot legal for any purpose, and another 28% favor 
legalizing medi-mari - thus, a clear 77% of all voters (a slight 
majority of those polled were Republican) favor legalizing medi-pot, 
and most certainly would favor Naishtat's bill. He says, "I'm saying 
with more confidence it's just a matter of time until it's legalized."

Indeed, since January, when Gov. Rick Perry said (during a panel 
discussion of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland) that he 
supports marijuana decriminalization - and the right of individual 
states to legalize the drug outright - the Texas media has been 
trolling for more. The Dallas Morning News asked Democratic 
gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis about her views in a recent 
interview; she would support medi-pot, she responded, and the right 
of voters to consider legalization (though she said she's not sure 
how she'd vote on that question). Land Commissioner and recent GOP 
lite guv candidate Jerry Patterson told public television station 
KERA, without hesitation, that he would support legalizing medical 
marijuana; and author/musician Kinky Friedman's all-pot-all-the-time 
race for agriculture commissioner netted him 38% of Democratic party 
voters, the most in the three-way race, sending him to a May run-off.

These are among the recent and public shifts that veteran lawmakers 
and advocates for drug-law reform consider harbingers of big things 
to come for the Lone Star State. It's just a matter of time, they 
say, before Texas goes all in for lasting marijuana-law reform.

The question is how quickly things will move, and what shape the 
future will take. Change Follows Experience The way state Rep. Harold 
Dutton, D-Hous-ton, sees it, all this talk about changing pot laws 
was inevitable. As Naishtat has fought long and hard to protect 
medical marijuana patients, so too Dutton has pressed - and pressed 
and pressed - to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, 
making possession of up to an ounce a fine-only offense. "[I]t 
appears that everyone else is getting as smart as I am," he said. 
"It's like you take a match and strike it and somehow or another the 
forest catches on fire and you have no idea how that happened.

But it's a good thing. It focuses on what criminal laws are designed 
to do: Protect people. How can you say that's what you're doing when 
you take a 20-year-old kid and arrest him [for possessing a joint]?" 
Dutton asks.

Like Naishtat's bill, Dutton's is a modest proposal (it keeps jail 
time on the table for possession of two ounces or more) that has 
gained only limited traction since 2005, when he first introduced it. 
Last year it made the most progress, voted out of the Criminal 
Jurisprudence Committee - with crucial Tea Partier support - before 
disappearing into the Calendars Committee, never to find a date with 
the House floor. Nevertheless, Dutton remains confident that his 
bill, too, will soon pass. "You have to realize how the Legislature 
operates," he said. "Remember the 'blue laws'? Trying to repeal the 
blue laws, people would say, 'More people are going to go to hell if 
you can shop on Sunday!' I think we have as many people going to hell 
now, but it took seven sessions to get that done." In short, he said, 
"People get very conservative about holding on to past statutes" - 
even where they serve no good purpose.

And like Naish-tat, Dutton has heard his colleagues lament that 
they'd love to vote for his bill, but can't. Yet he insists that if 
he keeps pressing long enough, his colleagues will come around and 
the job will get done. "One [House] member called me and told me he 
was against [my bill, but] that when his son was arrested for 
marijuana, he changed his mind," Dutton recalled. "Once you get some 
real experience, it changes things."

No More Harm: 'Legalize It' For sure, decriminalizing - or even 
outright legalizing - marijuana in Texas would bring a lot of 
benefits, advocates say, such as a noticeable reduction in criminal 
justice expenses, including the cost to lock up non-violent low-level 
drug offenders popped for possession. According to the FBI, in 2012, 
82.2% of all drug arrests in the U.S. were for possession only; of 
those, 42.4% were arrested for marijuana possession. In Texas the 
numbers are even starker: In 2012, according to the Texas Department 
of Pub-lic Safety, 57% of the 116,634 adult arrests for drug 
possession, and a whopping 81% of the 8,132 juvenile arrests for drug 
possession, were for possession of pot. Consider a low-level offender 
popped for pot and sentenced to a year in county jail - in Austin 
that costs taxpayers an average of $38,548 per inmate per year. Those 
are the kinds of numbers that make retired narcotics officer Russell 
Jones shake his head. Jones, who worked for the San Jose, Calif., 
police department and did foreign intelligence work before retiring 
to Central Texas in 1994, now works with the drug-law reform advocacy 
group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, as well as with the Drug 
Policy Forum of Texas, giving talks to anyone who wants to listen 
about why the War on Drugs is an utter and complete failure and 
should be put out of its misery.

Among the biggest reasons, Jones says, is that policing drugs does 
way more harm than the drugs themselves, particularly among youth and 
young adults who get caught up in the drug war dragnet.

The consequences of a single possession arrest can be haunting - 
taking away the opportunity to go to college, to enter a profession of choice.

And for what? "Throwing people in jail and saddling them with a drug 
conviction, you're doing a whole lot worse than the drug use" did, he 
said, particularly when the vast majority of people simply grow out 
of it. "The vast majority don't get addicted," he said. "So what's 
the least harmful way to deal with [drug use]?" To Jones the answer 
is to fully legalize it: Decriminalization, he says, still leaves 
production and distribution in the hands of the black market - 
including the cartels working up into Texas from the Mexico border.

He believes that legalizing marijuana in Texas would impose order on 
an underground business and, quite literally, save lives. "When was 
the last time we had a drive-by shooting between Bud and Coors? It 
doesn't happen, because it's a legal product," he said. "We've got to 
stop ruining kids' lives over youthful indiscretions."

Rob Kampia, Marijuana Policy Project Jones, like Naishtat, believes 
strongly that it's only a matter of diminishing time before medical 
marijuana is legal in Texas; Dutton believes decriminalization is on 
tap for the 2015 legislative session. But all three are more 
skeptical of when, or if, Texas will actually go all in to legalize 
marijuana. "I can't imagine making it legal," said Dutton, "but I 
think decriminalization is something Texas is going to do next session."

The Tipping Point? Despite Dutton's understandable skepticism, 
there's at least one deep-pocketed advocate who believes not only 
that Texas will legalize marijuana, but that change is right around the corner.

That's Rob Kampia, co-founder and executive director of the Marijuana 
Policy Project, which has backed nearly every successful marijuana 
initiative since the group's founding in the mid-Nineties, and was 
the driving force behind the 2012 vote to legalize pot in Colorado. 
Now, Kampia is bringing that winning spirit to Texas; beginning March 
1, the group hired its first-ever Texas lobbyist and has committed to 
spending $200,000 a year here until the job is done. Like Dutton and 
Naishtat, Kampia's heard plenty of lawmakers list all the reasons why 
pot-law reform simply won't work in their state.

He's been taken into closed-door meetings where lawmakers say in 
hushed tones, "I just don't know if I can support this." Sure you 
can, Kampia responds, because "marijuana polls better than you do." 
That has been the case in any number of states where MPP has, 
eventually, prevailed despite conventional wisdom to the contrary.

Indeed, the recent Texas Tribune/UT poll results reflect that voters 
favor some form of legalization (49%) more strongly than they approve 
of the job Gov. Rick Perry (42%) has done. "I've learned over the 
last 15 years, people in the state in question believe change is not 
possible in their state, but [is] possible in other states," he said. 
"We feel like legalizing marijuana in Texas - though people in Texas 
feel like it's impossible - I think it's possible in five years."

The tide is visibly turning against pot prohibition - at press time, 
legalization measures had been introduced or were pending in 17 
states, while medi-pot legalization measures had made it into 14 
state houses. Moreover, the rhetoric against marijuana-law reform has 
become increasingly tired, if not desperate.

Case in point: In testifying against a legalization measure pending 
in Maryland, Annapolis Police Chief Michael Pristoop told lawmakers 
that more than 30 people overdosed on marijuana on the first day it 
was legalized in Colorado. In contrast, he said, "No one's overdosing 
on beer." Unfortunately for Pristoop, the Colo-rado "pot-OD" story 
was a hoax, created by the satirical website Daily Currant, and no 
one at all had "overdosed" on marijuana (virtually an impossibility). 
By contrast, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 
approximately 88,000 deaths each year attributable to excessive 
alcohol use - something a police chief should know well. Pristoop 
subsequently apologized for mistaking the OD story as a factual 
account, but to reform advocates, the incident highlights the lengths 
to which some opponents would go to in order to avoid change. "This 
just underscores why we should not be treating drug issues with a law 
enforcement approach," says Tom Angell, founder of Marijua-na 
Majority. Kampia, who expects voters in as many as six states could 
legalize marijuana in the 2016 election cycle, says it's time to 
"take reality for what it is, and move forward." In Texas, he 
believes that time has come. "We're in and we're in for the long 
haul," he said. "We're ready to go." Naishtat says he's talked with 
MPP about its plans, and he supports those efforts, although, for now 
at least, he'll continue to push his moderate measure in the hope 
that, finally, his colleagues will agree that seriously ill Texans 
deserve their support. "I think we're getting close to the tipping 
point, in light of what is happening across the country," he said. 
"Maybe ... the eighth time [is the charm], or the ninth. But I know 
we're making progress."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom