Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a faction in the Texas Senate are out of step with just about everybody in their opposition to reducing penalties for small amounts of marijuana.
Just about everybody in this case includes the Texas House of Representatives, Gov. Greg Abbott, the Republican Party of Texas, the Chairman of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and most Texans who’ve thought objectively about the proposition.
The Texas House, for example, this week approved a law making possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a minor infraction punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time.
Shortly thereafter, Patrick tweeted the measure was “dead in the Texas Senate.” He cited comments by Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.
He went on to testify about his own opposition to the bill.
“I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana,” Patrick said.
Whitmire, however, told the Austin American-Statesman that while he had doubts about whether a majority of the Senate would support the bill, he never said it was “dead,” and was still working to get it passed.
That there’s any, much less majority, opposition in the Senate to this mild attempt at drug-law reform is odd, all things considered.
All things in this case includes the fact that the rank-and-file of the Texas GOP last year approved an even greater reduction in the penalties for possessing relatively small amounts of pot.
It’s item 107 of the party’s platform, which states “We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess 1 ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time.”
Likewise, Abbott during a debate last year said, “One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana.”
That’s exactly what House Bill 63 would prevent. It wouldn’t give Texans a license to burn one whenever and wherever, but would make possession of an ounce or less of pot a Class C misdemeanor, about the level of a traffic ticket, rather than a Class B misdemeanor, for which people are jailed.
There’s strong evidence Texas should join the growing ranks of states that are done with using their limited law enforcement resources to imprison people for two-bit marijuana crimes.
By the latest count, which might be out of date given the speed with which this tide is turning, 33 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws legalizing marijuana to greater or lesser extents. Most of the states have made only the medical use of marijuana legal, but there’s wide disparity in how tightly the medicinal purposes rule is actually enforced. In some states it’s a hard rule, in others it has air quotes around it.
Ten states and the nation’s capital have just cut to the chase and legalized all uses, including recreational.
Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington all have laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Meanwhile, Texas is arresting about 75,000 people each year for low-level marijuana possession.
Those nickel-and-dime pot arrests account for the vast majority of all drug arrests in Texas.
Most of the arrested are booked into jail and those who can’t make bail stay there at the taxpayers’ expense. Many are entitled to legal defense paid for by the county.
It’s not clear who Patrick and HB 63’s opponents in the Senate are serving. Maybe it’s the alcohol industry, maybe it’s criminal defense attorneys, maybe it’s the puritanical at both ends of the political spectrum who lay awake at night worrying that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.
They clearly are not, however, serving the best interests of the people and taxpayers of Texas.
• Michael A. Smith