Texans deserve revision of drug policies

Natalie San Luis

When Austin police chief Art Acevedo visited The Dudley & Bob Morning Show on KLBJ in December, it seemed like an ordinary PR appearance — that is, until the last few minutes of the interview.

After the show hosts made a couple of jokes about marijuana use, Art Acevedo interrupted to say, “You know, what you do in your home and the privacy of your home is great. We could care less, as long as you’re not selling the stuff and growing it for everybody else.” He quickly added, “Just don’t drive. Don’t drive, that’s all I ask.”

The discussion about marijuana that followed was brief but full of other surprising comments: Acevedo admitted that he hoped to smoke weed before he died, then made a few digs at the Williamson County’s police department, which is known for its aggressive drug enforcement practices. “What a price to pay to get a little bit of dope,” the police chief said, “to be doing body cavity searches every time you stop somebody for a misdemeanor.”

The nonchalant comments came soon after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use and, closer to home, Texas state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed HB 184. The bill seeks to make possession of marijuana, one ounce or less, a class C misdemeanor, the equivalent of a traffic ticket, rather than a class B misdemeanor, the equivalent of a DWI. Two months later in early January, Texas state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (a Democrat who represents many students living near UT’s campus) and Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed HB 594, a bill to allow doctors to legally recommend marijuana as a medical treatment and to legalize marijuana possession by those patients. Although the purchase and distribution of the drug would still be illegal, the bill would allow individuals suffering from Parkinson’s disease, cancer or MS to avoid jail time for eating pot brownies at their physician’s suggestion.

Revisions to both state and federal drug laws are long overdue: Prisons are overflowing with nonviolent offenders, more police departments are refusing to make possession arrests and almost half of the United States have legalized or decriminalized clinical use of marijuana. Harsh penalties for smoking weed put otherwise employable Texas citizens in expensive prisons for victimless, nonviolent crimes. The effects of jail time are far-reaching: Former inmates have a harder time finding well-paying jobs after a drug charge, which translates into more families in poverty and relying on social services.

The conversation on drug policies is changing. HB 184 and HB 594 offer Texas the a chance to be a part of that change, but the opportunity for bipartisan collaboration on reforming dated, expensive policies could easily be wasted. Both Rep. Dutton and Rep. Naishtat have introduced similar bills in prior legislative sessions, but if history bears out, neither HB 184 nor HB 594 will make it out of committee.

Although Gov. Rick Perry supports states’ rights to determine the legality of marijuana, he ignores Texas citizens’ demands to fix a broken system. The 2011 Texas Lyceum Poll — administered before Washington’s and Colorado’s drug laws passed — revealed that one-third of Texas voters supported legalizing marijuana, a measure far more controversial than decriminalization. If we can’t have immediate reform, we at least deserve a serious, well-informed discussion on the social, economic and psychological consequences of criminalizing a plant.

Buckley Rue, president of the UT chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, helps organize students to fight against restrictive laws on controlled substances. The religious studies senior said, “I think [the bills] are a powerful steps in the right direction. The bills don’t even need to get passed. Persistence is what’s going to win in the end.”

Persistence worked for Washington and Colorado, and hopefully persistence will work for decriminalization here. Until then, federal, state and local governments will continue to pour billions of dollars annually into a war against our own citizens that cannot be won. I hope our legislators will realize, as our police chief does, what Texas law sacrifices in the name of a little bit of dope.

San Luis is a Plan II, Women’s and Gender Studies and English senior from Buda.