Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Will shifting national debate on pot translate into Texas legislation in 2015?

For the most part, the Texas Legislature typically doesn't care much what happens in other states. But legalizing recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington definitely changed the terms of debate. And this election cycle, despite a GOP sweep in competitive House and Senate races, two more states and the District of Columbia joined the list of jurisdictions approving recreational use. From Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy:
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.

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.
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.

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.


TriggerMortis said...

Scott, did you see this yet? Democrats are leading the way!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@TM, the CA referendum was non-partisan - in the link you provided we learn that Newt Gingrich and Wayne Hughes supported it - but I'm glad it passed. It only made sense, whether you're an R or D, in light of the federal court orders making them the reduce prison population by 30K or so.

Anonymous said...

Along with decriminalizing the medical or recreational use of marijuana, I believe this state should a law for death by dignity and that should have happened yesterday nation wide. I wouldn't wish the pain my mother suffered the past two years but didn't want to relocate to Oregon (like the brave 26 year old did) because all our family is here. She suffered and died last month. We have two years to make all three happen. We need to get it on the ballot.

Anonymous said...

The tough on crime crowd in the legislature will block decriminalization because it would take away a tool that law enforcement use to search without really having PC to search your car. They just say they smell weed and off they go digging through your stuff. we never here from the people released after their rights were violated and the judges choose to believe the officers smelled pot even when what they find was some other contraband. As things stand now any bad cop on a valid traffic stop can get away with a bad search by claiming to smell pot when he does not.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a three phase approach:
1. De-criminalize and honor medical marijuana licenses for out-of-state visitors, who are within the possession limits of their home state.
2. 2 years later . . . Texas allows medical marijuana.
3. 2 years after 2) . . . legalize possession of personal quantities for people over 21, allow growing of up to 6 plants per person over 21, allow Texans to annually sell their rights to have up to 6 plants in cultivation.