Texas Politics: Marijuana decriminalization snuffed out

Published 9:52 am Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Texas Legislature probably will adjourn June 1 without reducing the penalties for marijuana possession to the level of a traffic ticket.

Proponents of the medical use of marijuana to combat the symptoms of epilepsy still hold out hope that efforts to allow it in Texas will succeed, but as of this writing, the chance for that is tentative in the hectic last days of the legislative session.

On medical use, parent after parent of children with epilepsy, whose seizures the herb seems to alleviate, testified that they have either had to get marijuana illegally, or go to another state where it is already permitted.

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Parent after parent pointed to the big difference in their kids’ behavior and quality of life with the use of marijuana, or its derivatives, as opposed to not using it.

And, this is a weaker form of marijuana, and the user doesn’t smoke it.

As for decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana, the basic things that treating marijuana use as a criminal offense has done is send lots of worthwhile people off to jail and prison, and help keep the price of drugs up.

Not only is this short-sighted, it is expensive and counter-productive. It is intriguing that this is one of the very few areas — maybe only the only area — where the political right and the political left back into each other in agreement.

The left-leaning, progressive social forces look at wasted human lives due to our country’s choice over the past few decades of dealing with drugs by incarceration rather than treatment.

On the right, the anti-big-government, anti-tax forces which abhor government spending look at it in a very basic way: we can’t afford it.

It’s rather obvious after three or four decades of experimentation that incarceration hasn’t worked. We have succeeded in breaking up a lot of families, caging a bunch of people – many of them minorities – who are eating up tax money rather than contributing it as working citizens.

Think how much better off our state could be if the money that we now spend to warehouse non-violent people for drugs, breaking up families and wasting lives, instead was spent on rehabilitation and education.

I’ve served now on two different grand juries. During the three months on each grand jury, it served to reinforce my opinions that our method of dealing with drugs is all wrong.

At least a majority of the cases we considered had two things in common.

One was that they were connected in some way to drugs: possession; sale; delivery; transport; and burglary, prostitution and robbery to support a drug habit.

The second was the education problem. Partly because we are stingy about spending what we should on schools and after-school programs and pre-kindergarten and early-childhood intervention, we leave a lot of young people starting off behind.

Add to that problem the fact that drug arrests remove fathers, and some mothers, from their families. That further helps set the stage for kids dropping out in their teen years.

After they’ve dropped out, in most cases they quickly figure out that with their limited skill sets, the most lucrative thing they can do is – you guessed it – sell drugs.

Doing so often results in arrest in relatively short order. That in turn results in sending them off to prison, to be housed with the real criminals.

Prison is often much less a rehabilitative experience than the equivalent of getting a graduate degree in how to be a criminal. When inmates do get out of prison, many employers won’t hire them. A prison sentence is a stigma that, when checked on a job application, usually means there’s no need to fill out the rest of it.

Too often they find that the only path left for them to make money is — again — selling drugs. And so the cycle continues.

The reason these efforts to make our laws more reasonable and effective in many cases aren’t successful – at least in Texas — is that the lawmakers – particularly Republicans, who make up a large majority in both House and Senate – worry about their political survival in a GOP primary should they support decriminalization.

Maybe they are reflecting the views of the public, though one recent poll showed that 67 percent of voters were in favor of decriminalization.

Interestingly, however, a growing number of very conservative Republican legislators are beginning to realize that our choice to deal with marijuana by incarceration rather than through treatment, education and community service, is expensive, counter-productive, cruel with regard to medical use, and usually unsuccessful.

Blessings on those brave Republicans who join with their Democratic colleagues in trying to help change policies that cost a lot of money and seldom work.

Contact McNeely at davemcneely111@gmail.com or 512/458-2963.