How decriminalizing marijuana would benefit Texas’ health, equality

Ali Breland

At The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland two weeks ago, Rick Perry spoke in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, stating, “What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward decriminalization and keep people from going to prison and destroying their lives.”

Though Perry’s words seemed progressive, they were still just that — words. Words that probably reflect a political rhetoric for Perry’s anticipated national ambitions in 2016. 

Perry’s advocacy for decriminalization didn’t include any endorsement of specific policy measures. His statement appeased the pro-marijuana crowd without alienating him from his base; from a political perspective, it’s the best of both worlds. The fact that Perry can endorse decriminalization and potentially walk away without taking too much flack from conservatives is indicative of a growing sentiment in favor of reducing drug penalties.

The changing sentiment is for good reason: Decriminalizing marijuana is highly beneficial for our justice system, our state’s racial equality, and potentially, our health. 

Cheyanne Weldon, executive director of the Austin Chapter of the National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws, put the benefits in context for Texas: “There are lot of benefits economically and socially from not arresting 80,000 people a year for marijuana possession,” she said. “We’ll save $10,000 per arrest.”

Benefits to the justice system don’t just help us economically; it also is also a significant step toward racial equality. According to the New York Times, blacks are four times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges, despite the fact that, according to the ACLU, there is little difference in the usage rates of marijuana between the two races.

A comprehensive ACLU report released last May cited initiatives like the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program as providing incentives for racial profiling. Programs like this factor in the total number of annual arrests in the performance measures of local law enforcement, and in so doing, arguably encourage increased arrest rates. 

University of California, Los Angeles psychology professor Phillip Atiba Goff elaborated on this in the  New York Times. He said that police departments can concentrate on minority and lower-income areas to meet arrest quotas. These kinds of policies exacerbate abhorrent racial issues surrounding marijuana-related arrests.

In Austin, black people make up about 8.1 percent of the population, according to the 2010 census. According to the Austin Police Department, however, black individuals make up about 28.1 percent of those arrested on marijuana charges. So if the ACLU’s marijuana usage statistics are correct, then this number is indicative of Austin’s own race issues in law enforcement.

The racial disparity between usage and arrests is a blunt example of institutional racism. Decriminalization won’t solve this problem at its core, but it will be a step in the right direction.

There are also potential medical benefits to decriminalization. According to an article published in The Lancet — a medical journal — marijuana is less addictive and harmful than alcohol and tobacco, two legal inebriants. Aside from being relatively innocuous, it can greatly help fight nausea and the loss of appetite from chemotherapy and reduce pain caused by multiple sclerosis. Research has shown that it may be able to help with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, migraine, cancer growth, abnormal heart rhythms, Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, incontinence, bacterial infections, osteoporosis, intense itching, Tourette’s syndrome and sleep apnea.

Of course, we shouldn’t be too quick to jump on the medical marijuana bandwagon, as more research of the drug is needed. Even so, decriminalization is the first step in allowing scientists to legally undertake research to provide a definitive answer on the potential health benefits of marijuana.

There are many benefits to decriminalization, but Perry’s comments, which were probably made in an attempt to frame himself as more politically libertarian, aren’t a promise of future beneficial policies. Even so, they are a potentially significant step towards a policy that could greatly benefit Texas.

Breland is a Plan II senior from Houston.