NORML-izing Drug Laws
If there’s any doubt that the landscape of marijuana laws is changing in Texas, as it is in the rest of the country, look no farther for proof than the Global Marijuana March coming up Saturday in downtown Fort Worth.
Shaun McAlister, executive director of DFW NORML, the group planning the march, said the event has drawn more than 1,000 reservations on Facebook, by those who plan to take part.
“We’ve never had that kind of early interest in this event,” he said. Usually his group, the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, draws about 500 people for the march, which they’ve been putting on for five years.
McAlister said the debate over decriminalizing marijuana has transformed over the past year, mostly in the direction of his group’s positions.
“Last November, as we watched Colorado and Washington legalize [recreational] marijuana we realized this was going to be a game changer,” he said.
For the first time in Texas, libertarian, liberal, and Tea Party groups are finding common ground in the idea that jails are not an appropriate solution for nonviolent drug offenders. Around the country, changes in both state and federal laws are lowering or could lower criminal penalties for marijuana possession, and in some cases legalize the recreational or medicinal uses of the drug.
“Incarceration is not the best way to treat drug offenders,” said Vikrant Reddy, senior policy analyst at Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research and free-market advocacy group. “When you lock someone in a box they still have a chemical dependency.”
Policy Foundation does not advocate the legalization of marijuana, but Reddy said his group is working to make fiscally sound reforms to the state’s drug laws.
“Why are we paying to keep people in jail [for minor offenses] if they are going to get probation anyway?” he said. One alternative, issuing a citation for marijuana possession, would make “eminently better fiscal sense” he said.
A recent poll of 1,000 likely voters by TPPF showed strong public support for less punitive treatment of nonviolent drug offenders. When asked if drug offenders (but not dealers) should be given probation and drug treatment as an alternative to jail time, 79 percent of respondents agreed.
Reddy said directors at TPPF were surprised to find self-described Tea Party supporters voting pretty much like self-described liberals in the poll.
That doesn’t mean that NORML members and Tea Party groups will be holding rallies together anytime soon.
“It’s not like the Tea Party is exactly inviting us to come out to their picnics,” joked McAlister. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
In January, Gov. Rick Perry caught national attention when he announced his support for softening penalties for minor drug offenses in Texas.
“He really didn’t say anything that out of the ordinary,” said Reddy. “He had already established drug courts [to lesson jail sentences] in Texas’ five largest urban areas and signed a bill that allowed citations to be given for marijuana possession.”
“I didn’t take him that seriously,” McAlister said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot when a governor said something on his way out off office, but it did get people thinking about it.”
Whether or not the words of a lame-duck governor carry any weight, several Texas legislators in Texas are working on bills to change the treatment of marijuana users in court.
State Rep. Elliott Naishtat of Austin, who has worked unsuccessfully for years to legalize medical uses of marijuana in this state, said he will try again in the legislative session that starts in January.
“There is ample evidence that marijuana is beneficial to people suffering from the chronic and debilitating pain associated with cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis,” he said. “I’ve introduced this bill six times, so I’m hoping seven will be the charm.”
Last year the medical marijuana bill was considered by the House Public Health Committee. Afterward, two Republicans on the panel came to him and said they were considering the proposal with open eyes for the first time.
“The witnesses who spoke were compelling,” Naishtat recalled. “We had a woman with multiple sclerosis, and men with cancer and AIDS who said they needed medical marijuana to work and lessen the pain of treatment.”
While he hasn’t taken a public stance on marijuana legalization in Texas, Naishtat said he sees the whole country moving in that direction.
“You’re seeing more and more of this; 21 states have legalized some form of medical marijuana,” he said.
McAlister said medical marijuana provisions are needed “so we can get help to patients who are fleeing Texas for treatments elsewhere.”
State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth said Texas is slowly moving away from a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality. “Unfortunately, there are still thousands of victims of this mindset.”
The argument that decriminalization is fiscally responsible is resonating with legislators, Burnam said. “Change can always happen if you have some Republican support.”
On the national level, a bill known as the Smarter Sentencing Act may reshape drug sentencing laws in federal courts by reducing minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, in some cases, by half. A version of the bill was passed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in January with the support of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“The act has a good chance of passing,” Reddy said. “The feds have been waiting to see how similar laws played out in states first.”
“These changes have come incrementally across the country,” said McAlister. “Even the changes in the state of Washington started with a city ordinance. Things are going to change with small steps here in Texas too. The average marijuana arrest costs taxpayers $10,000. We had better be fighting some serious crimes for that kind of money. We need laws that don’t throw people into cages for nonviolent offenses.”
He also said billboard advertising bought by his group is helping draw attention to Saturday’s march. Located near I-20 and Anglin Drive, it features a large Texas flag, but with a marijuana leaf replacing the star.