Decriminalizing marijuana in Texas makes sense

Decriminalizing marijuana makes sense By JOHN DELANEY Special to The Eagle The Eagle

Another gifted college football athlete — Texas A&M’s 21-year-old Devante “Speedy” Noil — faces team discipline after being arrested for allegedly possessing 5 grams of marijuana.

In Texas this is a crime, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, and up to 180 days in a county jail, or both.

But now, eight states (four in just the past month) have decided this isn’t a crime at all. In 21 states it wouldn’t result in an arrest, and would be punishable only by a small fine. Advocates call that “decriminalization” — different from “legalization” because it would remain prohibited by law and therefore “illegal.”

Next month the Texas Legislature will begin to consider a bill (H.B. 81/S.B. 170) that would put our state in this “decriminalization” group. According to polls, 4 out of 5 Texans support this change in Texas law.

Supporters of “decriminalization” argue it’s a better approach because it doesn’t result in the numerous collateral consequences of a normal conviction. One of those is an automatic 180-day driver’s license suspension, regardless of whether the offense was connected to driving a vehicle. And license reinstatement isn’t automatic, unlike release from jail after serving a sentence. To get a license back one has to file an application, pay a $100 fee, buy expensive “SR-22” insurance, and complete a 15-hour drug education course.

Another consequence is a permanent criminal record of the conviction. It can affect employment opportunities for a lifetime. Just ask any small business owner about how hard it is to hire an employee with any drug conviction on his or her record, even if it happened more than a decade earlier.

Another advantage to “decriminalization” is that it begins with a citation instead of an arrest. That avoids the two hours of police time it takes to process someone who’s arrested, leaving officers free to respond to calls such as burglary or domestic violence.

In another bill (S.B. 269) our Legislature will consider expanding the Compassionate Care Act it passed in 2015, to allow Texas patients and doctors to decide if some form of cannabis product would be appropriate to treat a health problem. According to polls, 76 percent of Texas voters support this change as well. An equal percentage of doctors support the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Meanwhile, advocates say using criminal law to control the use of cannabis has been worse than unsuccessful, because its main result has been to create a violent and dangerous criminal underground to supply and even promote a strong demand. They point to our failed experiment with alcohol prohibition as proof that criminal prohibition doesn’t work. Where there’s a demand there will be a supply — legal or not.

Ironically, after 45 years and billions of dollars expended on criminal prohibition, it’s easier today for a teenager to buy marijuana than to buy cigarettes or beer! If there’s something wrong with this picture, it begs the question of whether we have the courage to do something about it.

The current disappointment with what’s commonly called the “War on Drugs” was predicted as early as 1972 by a federal commission appointed by then-President Richard Nixon. Much to his disappointment, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (the “Shafer Commission”) concluded among other things that possession of marijuana for personal use wasn’t dangerous enough to justify the imposition of the criminal law. “Neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety. Therefore the Commission recommends [the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense.”

No comparable study of the issue has concluded any differently.

More recently, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a respected medical correspondent for CNN, stated his opinion about marijuana prohibition: “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.” His 2013 documentary can be seen on the internet at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3IMfIQ_K6U, and his 2014 follow-up at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNHyED6oXTk.

Interestingly, at the highest level of football competition, the National Football League, it’s estimated that today about 60 percent of NFL players regularly consume cannabis, according to Doctors for Cannabis Regulation in an open letter to the National Football League on Nov. 11. What would explain that? It may have something to do with the pain-relieving effects of some marijuana substances, which players use as an alternative to very habit-forming narcotic painkillers.

None of which is to say that all forms of marijuana use are good, especially for young people. There is much evidence that it’s unhealthy for them, at least in some forms. But there also is much credible evidence that some forms of marijuana can help treat many medical conditions when appropriately used.

There’s a difference between advocating for sensible, reasonable regulation and encouraging unlimited use.

Obviously this discussion doesn’t change the fact that the athlete may have broken team rules.

But it may raise the question of how severe the punishment should be.

• John Delaney is a retired Texas district court judge, mediator and arbitrator.

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