The 2014 election was a successful for marijuana legalization. Referendum initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana passed in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. Florida’s legalization amendment (which was limited to medical marijuana) failed, but only because victory required a 60% supermajority (it got 57% percent). A medical marijuana initiative did pass in the Pacific island territory of Guam.Nationally, some pot-legalization strategists discouraged ballot initiatives on the topic in 2014, fearing the sort of red-voter swamping of the electorate that did indeed occur yesterday. 2016 is supposed to be the real tipping point with several states including California in play, according to the national groups' playbook; this year was too risky. But such fears didn't come to fruition in Oregon, Alaska, or D.C., where recreational use will soon be legal.
Coming on the heels of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012, this is a further sign of pro-legalization momentum, and perhaps of dissatisfaction with the War on Drugs more generally – even among some conservatives.
Sometimes experts can outsmart themselves. In my experience, ideological conservatives aren't a barrier to drug policy reform, or shouldn't be. Indeed, pitched correctly, small government conservatives are natural allies for those who want to treat drug abuse as a medical problem instead of a criminal one and reduce the footprint of the justice system.
Texas doesn't have initiative and referendum; any reform legislation here must pass both chambers at the Legislature and be signed by Greg Abbott. So change here can't happen on the Colorado, Washington, or Oregon model; it can't happen at the ballot box. Instead, incrementalism is the order of the day.
Grits continues to believe that, while the Texas Legislature will not outright legalize pot in 2015, important constituencies now support (or at least don't strongly oppose) reducing penalties for low-level pot possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor - the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of such a policy would be county governments which don't want to raise taxes to pay for jail space and attorneys for indigent pot smokers and covet a new Class C revenue stream. (Some of those same constituencies, it should be added, also support reducing all charges for driving with an invalid license from a B to a C - the Driver Responsibility surcharge has made the numbers overwhelming.)
There has been talk of making low-level pot possession a civil violation instead of a criminal penalty. But it's unclear to me how that would work under Texas' legal framework, which couches all sorts of regulations as criminal offenses that would be civil violations in other states (for example, that's how we get 11 felonies involving oysters). Maybe they can figure out an angle but it's hard to see how they shoehorn it in with existing enforcement mechanisms. The only civil-penalty equivalent I can think of are red-light camera tickets and they have all sorts of enforcement problems.
Either way, there's a coalition to be had on reducing marijuana penalties between local tax hawks, small-government conservatives and anti-drug war liberals that could potentially pass a bill which reduced arrests, jail time, indigent defense costs, and provided real, county-level property tax relief. And the large number of new faces in both chambers provides opportunities for new conversations and perhaps even new coalitions over the next session or two.
I'd be surprised if a bill to "legalize" pot even gets a hearing in 2015. Legislation to ratchet down penalties for low-level possession, on the other hand, conceivably could pass if the leadership would let members vote on it.