HOUSTON – Two Texas lawmakers vow to re-introduce marijuana legislation as many times as it takes to move the Lone Star state closer to Colorado and Washington state-style pot regulations.
But experts in drug policy predict anywhere from 5-to-10 years before lawmakers in Austin might consider being swayed to change Texas marijuana laws.
“I would say within the next decade. Certainly within the next decade,” said Nathan Jones, Ph.D. with Rice University’s Baker Institute. “If you’re looking at the polling data, it looks pretty electable. Or it looks almost inevitable.”
Recent polls by the Marijuana Policy Project and other polling organizations show an estimated 58 percent of Texans support legalizing, regulating, and taxing small amounts of marijuana. Also, 61 percent support reducing penalties for possession of a small amount.
State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. said he plans to try for a fourth time to get a vote on his proposed bill that would lessen penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Current Texas law considers possession of two ounces or less as a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Dutton’s bill proposes that an ounce or less be considered a Class C misdemeanor -- that puts it at essentially the same level as a traffic ticket.
The person would still be guilty of a criminal offense - although greatly lessened - and be required to attend a drug and alcohol awareness class. Dutton said the change would free up police, court and jail resources to deal with more serious crimes.
“I think that’s a little overkill for somebody who has an ounce or less of marijuana,” Dutton said of current Texas law.
“It’s a sea change from where Texas was,” he said of the proposed changes.
“Is it dangerous to be using [marijuana] in your house, for example?” he asked comparing marijuana use to consuming alcohol. “Probably not any more so than having a drink in your house.”
Rep. Elliott Naishtat, of Austin, said he will make a seventh attempt this next legislative session to get a medical marijuana bill to the house floor for a vote.
So far the bill, that would legalize the use of marijuana in specific doctor-prescribe medical applications, has never made it out of committee, despite testimony from Texans last session who claim marijuana is a key ingredient to managing a variety of illnesses from glaucoma to multiple sclerosis, and easing the symptoms of chemotherapy.
“We make a little bit of progress every session. Last session, for the first time we had a hearing on the bill,” Naishtat said. “And it was very compelling, because the people who testified were people with legitimate medical conditions who were using marijuana specifically for medical purposes.
“All the publicity that’s been focused on the state of Washington and Colorado only helps us in what we’re trying to do,” he continued.
“I believe it will happen across the nation,” said Dante Cuccurullo, the president of the north Houston chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“I’m a father. I’m a husband. You know I shouldn’t be taken to jail for what I choose to do with my own body,” said Cuccurullo, who supports both Naishtat’s medical marijuana legislation and Dutton’s proposal to ease Texas marijuana laws. “We don’t want it in the hands of our children. We don’t want it in our school systems. We want it for consenting adults over the age of 18.”
Changes in marijuana legislation in Colorado and Washington state came after voter initiatives. Texas requires a two-thirds majority in both houses in Austin before a similar rewrite of Texas law could be made.
“There are too many members of the Texas House of Representatives who say to me, ‘Elliott, I can’t afford -- I can’t take the chance of looking weak on crime,’” Naishtat said of what he admits is a difficult argument to make in Texas.
But Dutton believes it is an opinion war of attrition that will eventually gain traction.
“As we force this discussion about marijuana, I think most of the time what happens is legislators start to feel the pressure from their own constituents,” Dutton said.
“Even if it doesn’t pass in the next legislative session, even though it’s polling in Texas at 58 percent, those attempts will prime the pump for later,” predicts Jones, who has written extensively about drug policy, drug wars in Mexico, and his assessment of the impact of U.S. drug laws.
“I don’t think we will be the last state,” Naishtat said. “But we have a big hurdle to overcome.”