Friday, February 20, 2015

Don't say 'legalize', say 'decriminalize'


Judging from the press, the Marijuana Policy Project's lobby day at the Texas Capitol (this past Wednesday) appears to have gone well. See coverage here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Much of the coverage mentioned the professional presentation of lobby-day participants in contrast to stoner stereotypes, which is a good sign, though some reporters still can't discuss the issue without giggling. Happily, it sounds from the coverage like Speaker Joe Straus may be open to allowing bills reducing penalties for low-level marijuana possession to get a vote on the House floor. Bills to that effect have cleared committee in the past but never seem to get set on the House floor calendar.

Meanwhile the press, in reductionist fashion, continues to frame most marijuana issues as being about "legalization." However, though a majority of Texans support that, that's not what's at stake this legislative session. Instead, the bill with the most momentum appears to be Rep. Joe Moody's legislation to create a civil penalty for low-level pot possession, a move which would have kept nearly 65,000 people last year from being arrested and taken to jail while still punishing them. Other legislation by Rep. Harold Dutton and Gene Wu would reduce penalties for small amounts to a Class C misdemeanor.

Sen, Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and Rep. Stephanie Klick (R- Fort Worth) have each filed a bill to allow medical marijuana to be allowed specifically for certain epilepsy cases.  Rep. Elliott Naishtat has also carried the decriminalization water for several sessions.

In 2009 a Houston city council candidate who sought my counsel wanted to push for a city ordinance in favor of legal dope.  What I told him is what you see in the headline here.  Six years later, with four states (WA, OR, AK, and CO) and the District of Columbia having legalized, ten states (CA, NV, MN, NY, ME, MA, DE, MD, VT, and RI) having both decriminalized and allowed medical cannabis to be sold and consumed, another nine states (NM, AZ, MT, MI, IL, NH, NJ, DE, Hawaii) and the territory of Guam allowing legal medical marijuana only, and another four states (NE, OH, NC, MS) and the US Virgin Islands having decriminalized pot possession laws ... the rest of the states, including Texas, still sit in prohibition.

As Grits argued in a recent guest column in the Dallas Morning News, I don't view such bills through a "legalization" lens so much as from a "less government" perspective. Jails are a major driver of county property taxes. And, "If you want to cut the budget in a meaningful, sustainable way, you must identify something government is currently doing that costs money and choose not to do it."

Choosing to stop arresting and jailing pot smokers and paying for their indigent defense costs fits that bill precisely. Bottom line: If you want government to cost less, make it do less stuff. And this is one of those things the Legislature could just let the locals stop doing. 

Even though it became an issue in the Harris County district attorney race last year -- the Democratic challenger proposed decriminalizing possession in late July; the Republican incumbent followed suit by the beginning of October --  a Harris County poll released a couple of weeks before Election Day last November (right at the start of the early voting period)  showed 49% opposing legalization versus 43% who favored it.  But as to decriminalizing it, 62% were in favor, and just 29% were against.

Across Texas -- a year ago and according to the TexTrib -- the numbers are much more favorable to legal weed (in some form).

The executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project says 2019 will be the year something finally happens in Texas; he made that prediction last June in the Baker Institute's blog, where the rest of those geniuses are all over the place with their predictions.  And as reported here previously, the US attorney general-designate, Loretta Lynch, stands opposed to all of it: decriminalization, approval for medicinal purposes, and certainly legalization.

The bottom line here in Deep-In-The Hearta is that we're probably still a long way -- as in a few legislative sessions -- from easing the penalties for possession of a few joints, or even so much as allowing its medical use, because progress always makes Texas its last stop.

Who'd like to see me wrong in my prediction?  Hold up your lighters and yell "Free Bird!"

Update: RG Ratcliffe, now blogging at Paul Burka's place, asks the right question: 'Would Texas legalize marijuana if Walmart wanted it?'

Probably the biggest obstacle to the legalization of medical marijuana is the fear that people might have fun through inebriation. And that got me thinking about how Alexis Bortell and Walmart are sort of the same -- only different. Perhaps I think that because of the $435,000 that Walmart heiress Alice Walton poured into Texas political campaigns last year. I couldn’t find any donations from Alexis or her family. There also is a difference between Alexis and Walmart because the inebriating product Walmart is pushing in this year’s Legislature already is legal.


I don’t want to argue for or against legalizing marijuana or medical marijuana. But I do want to ask the question: Why can’t Alexis get some tender loving care and some THC if Walmart gets its package stores? 

Update (2/24): Charles hints that the Eltife/Klick bills might have the greatest chance of passage this session.  Alexis Bortell's parents find no solace in the current nomenclature, however.  The two opposing views...

I have been talking to a number of members that feel like this is a way to separate those that want to see the therapeutic benefits of the substance without the potential for abuse,” said Klick, who is a registered nurse. “As is, [these oils] have no street value and no psychoactive effect. If we bump that ratio up, I think we will lose support.” 

Klick said there will also be a loss of political support if her bill is expanded to include other ailments, such as cancer, Crohn's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease.


As the bill is written, it stands to lose the support of Alexis Bortell, whose story has made national news and struck an emotional chord in Texas. In 2013, when Alexis was 7, she had her first seizure in the family's home in Rowlett, near Dallas. Since then, doctors have struggled to find medication that would offer her relief. 

As the legislation is written now, Alexis would only be able to use CBD if we could show that there were no other FDA-approved treatments available to her,” said Dean Bortell, a U.S. Navy veteran and computer programmer. “That means trying several dangerous pharmaceuticals that she has already had a bad reactions to. The second one she tried she had trouble with, and we were far below the maximum dosage.”

I repeat: nothing is going to happen with weed this go-round.

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