Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jun 2014
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Austin American-Statesman
Note: Letters MUST be 150 words or less
Author: Terri Burke
Note: Burke is executive director of the ACLU of Texas, headquartered 
in Houston.
Page: A8


You might find yourself racing to the eye doctor if you picked up 
your newspaper and read "Governor Perry and the ACLU agree."

When the discussion is about marijuana, though, you'd be wasting your 
co-pay. In January, at an international conference in Switzerland, 
Perry said he supports softening penalties for pot users. He 
correctly pointed out that our state has been in the forefront of the 
movement to implement policies that provide sentencing alternatives 
such as drug courts and rehabilitation programs outside the prison setting.

In the past seven years, Texas has been a nationally recognized 
leader in what has become known as the "smart on crime" movement. 
Unlikely allies such as the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Public Policy 
Foundation, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the Texas 
Association of Business, working alongside legislators such as state 
Sens. John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis and former state Rep. Jerry Madden, 
have enacted policies that are more cost-efficient for taxpayers and 
that reduce recidivism rates. These are policies that put low-level 
or nonviolent offenders to work, back in their communities supporting 
their families and paying taxes.

Decriminalizing marijuana is the next important step. By any measure, 
the war on drugs, particularly on marijuana, has been a failure. It 
is time to enact fairer, more compassionate laws that will reduce 
drug dependency and improve our health and safety.

In his remarks in Switzerland, Perry said we need policies that keep 
"people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that's 
what we've done over the last decade." He's right, though an offender 
arrested with less than 2 ounces of marijuana, which is considered a 
misdemeanor, can still be incarcerated up to 180 days and be fined a 
maximum of $2,000. After six months in jail, he's lost his job, been 
kicked out of school, lost custody of his children, or been thrown 
out of his housing.

In fact, the steady increase in the harsh treatment of drug users 
started two decades ago. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of 
marijuana arrests in this country increased by 51 percent. A study of 
arrest records shows that between 2001 and 2010, there were more than 
8 million marijuana arrests in the United States - the overwhelming 
majority of which were for simple possession. That's one bust every 37 seconds.

The staggering increase in arrests is devastating communities of 
color. A recent national study by the ACLU shows that although blacks 
and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, black people are on 
average 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. 
In some parts of Texas, black people are more than 30 times more 
likely to be targeted by law enforcement. And too many young black 
men, once embroiled in the criminal justice system, never escape it.

We must stop wasting scarce public dollars on this failed war. In one 
year, 2010, our nation spent more than $3.6 billion enforcing 
marijuana laws. Any good police chief can outline for you how much 
more effectively he could spend that kind of money: keeping 
communities safe, investigating serious and often unsolved crimes, 
and reinvesting in public health programs, including drug treatment.

Frankly, the ACLU would prefer to see marijuana legalized and 
regulated, including imposing taxes on its sales. But in the spirit 
of finding common ground with the governor, who opposes legalization, 
here is how we would propose decriminalizing marijuana: depenalize, 
decriminalize and deprioritize marijuana possession. Reclassify 
marijuana possession as a civil offense subject to a small fine. Put 
an end to over-enforcement of marijuana possession by changing policy 
and by eliminating federal incentives, such as grants that are 
awarded based on the numbers of arrests made.

After the governor returned to the U.S., he was asked on a Sunday 
morning show to elaborate on his remarks. And he did: "The idea that 
a kid has one marijuana cigarette and you send him to prison, where 
they can learn to really be a hardened criminal, is not thoughtful 
public policy."

I wish I'd said that.
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