As new marijuana policy is introduced, the focus should shift to addressing current offenders

Rohan Batlanki

Historically, Texas has been a national leader in arrests for marijuana possession, earning second in 2010 with over 74,000 arrests. And now, as the political opinion toward cannabis becomes more lenient, many offenders incarcerated under the older, harsher laws are still in prison.

In October 2017, the Austin Chronicle reported the possible opening of a marijuana dispensary in a town southeast of Travis County. In the four months since, two more have opened up within Austin.

Since Texas’s Compassionate Use Act, legislation liberalizing regulation of the sale, use and manufacturing of cannabis and related products, has slowly garnered bipartisan support. The Act, which allows limited prescription of low-THC cannabis for certain epilepsy patients. It’s a forerunner for cannabis legalization law, just as the similar Proposition 215 of California was in 1996.

Although they did not pass, bills like HB 81 sought to lower the criminal charge for possession under an ounce, and two bills attempted to make medical marijuana more accessible. Several of these even boasted bipartisan authorship, showing support on both sides of the aisle. All of these policies seek to address future sale and usage of cannabis. Legislation so far has lacked a push for liberating offenders currently serving time under more severe sentences, despite changing attitudes.

One critic of sentence reduction legislation is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who believes that only those who are guilty would request a pardon, the step necessary to change someone’s record. This thinking is in line with his ‘hard no’ philosophy on criminal pardons for state felons. But guilt is irrelevant because under current policy, old offenders will receive unequal treatment. They should be evaluated by the same law of the land as future offenders who may benefit from the proposed lenient sentencing. An individual should not be subject to stricter punishment based on when they committed a crime.

Amendment 64 in Colorado, legalized marijuana in 2012. Within six months, Colorado passed Senate Bill 250, which changed drug sentences and penalties and opened a method by which previous felons could lower their charge to a misdemeanor. California was even quicker and accepted nearly 5,000 petitions, redesignating past convictions as soon as the state legalized recreational marijuana.

Frank Ungaro, one of the first of many felons who successfully got their conviction dropped down to a misdemeanor in Colorado court, told Slate these measures are essential to rehabilitation. After serving probation for marijuana possession, Ungaro attempted to move on with his life. He earned a job and eventually starting his own business. But he was constantly plagued by the felony on his criminal record. Colorado’s appeals process allowed him to further his life unencumbered by mistakes for which he  already served time.

Ungaro’s story mirrors many others across since the inception of the Colorado SB 250. Moreover, it portrays the ethos of the United States criminal justice system: removing society’s deviants from the streets and returning them as functional members of society.

Texas too must enact procedures to re-evaluate current cases in light of new laws. The slow cultural acceptance of cannabis actually grants its legislative bodies more time to consider how these procedures should be drafted, before the momentum of further cannabis legalization takes hold.

Austin has the important responsibility as a municipal and state-level model for marijuana legislation reform in Texas. Although attitudes are changing, they are doing so slowly. We should consider the citizens who may be overlooked before the cannabis industry potentially booms in Texas.

Batlanki is a Neuroscience sophomore from Flower Mound. Follow him on Twitter @RohanBatlanki.