5 Reasons Texas Should Decriminalize Marijuana, and One Reason It Shouldn’t

Last year, eleven separate marijuana-related bills were introduced in the Texas legislature, and next year we can probably expect eleven more. Candidates for local offices in Austin and Houston are running on marijuana decriminalization platforms, and the Dallas city council is poised to implement a “cite and release” pilot program for low-level possession offenders. It’s beginning to feel like a movement, and forgive us for saying so, but it’s high time.

There are plenty of good reasons to decriminalize marijuana, and only one reason not to:

1. Cops have better things to do.

In 2010, about 75,000 Texans were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In 2012, that number was about 70,000. That same year, about 90% of the burglaries, home invasions, and car thefts reported in Texas remained unsolved. In Houston alone, 12,000 possession arrests were made in 2013, while 15,000 burglaries, 3,000 hit-and-runs, and 3,000 assaults went uninvestigated.


There are only so many cops, and only so many hours in the day, and we need to decide where their priorities should lie. Would we rather have them busting college kids and cancer patients and veterans suffering from PTSD, or keeping thieves out of our homes and getting our stuff back?

2. Criminalization is insanely expensive.

In 2010, the State of Texas spent a quarter of a billion dollars enforcing marijuana laws, and a staggeringly high percentage of those put through the system were arrested for mere possession. That money would be far better spent elsewhere on schools, infrastructure, tax relief, or literally anything else less ludicrous than putting pot smokers in prison.


3. Marijuana is (relatively) harmless.

Tobacco kills about half a million Americans every year. Alcohol accounts for another 30,000, and prescription drug abuse claims another 20,000. Marijuana fatalities remain, year after year, at a statistical zero.


4. Some offenders are more equal than others.

Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates, but blacks are between 4 and 34 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. And thus for a single marijuana charge, more young black men and women will be denied jobs, school loans, housing assistance, and promising futures.


5. Nearly everybody’s already on board.

Marijuana decriminalization has been a contentious ideological issue for nearly a century, but today about half of all Americans, and 75% of all Texans, support it. And it’s easy to understand why; it’s not every day that issues of personal freedom, limited government, fiscal responsibility, and good science align behind a single issue. This is how you get the likes of the New York Times editorial board on the same page as conservative firebrands like RAMP’s Ann Lee, who has gone on the record to say that “the prohibition of marijuana is diametrically opposed to Republican principles.” Indeed, only two of the current presidential candidates support a blanket criminalization of marijuana.

And one reason not to…

If there’s one thing wrong with the decriminalization movement, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough. Decriminalization would be a welcome first step, but legalization should follow. Were we to adopt Colorado’s robust regulatory structure, Texas would see not only a windfall, but an annual profit in the tens of millions of dollars from taxes on marijuana sales. Legalization would likewise disincentivize consumers from pouring money into the cross-border pipeline of illegal weed coming up from the south. And finally, Texans suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, MS, and PTSD—twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide in this country—would have access to an effective medication without fear of imprisonment.

20 marijuana facts in 4 words for 4/20

  1. Legal marijuana is inevitable
    Marijuana legalization is not a matter of “if”, but “when.” The sooner Texas gets on board, the sooner it will be able to help its citizens.
  2. Most Texans support legalization
    In fact, 77% of Texans believe marijuana should be made legal for at least medical purposes.
  3. Marijuana decriminalization bill introduced
    Some Texas State Representatives have introduced bills that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), introduced one that would radically change punishments for possession of under an ounce. Instead of a criminal charge leading to jail time and fines of up to $2,000, individuals would be fined only up to $100.
  4. Drug war a failure
    The war on drugs is doing nothing to curb drug use, and doing a lot to put large amounts of people in prison. In fact, the US has the largest prison population in the world at about 2.3 million.
  5. Arrests waste taxpayer dollars
    $251,641,800 was spent enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone by the state of Texas. Decriminalization could prevent the majority of these costs.

  6. Texas second in arrests
    In 2010, Texas ranked second in the nation for most arrests for marijuana possession. In Texas, someone is arrested every 0.12 hours for possession marijuana, or every 7.5 minutes. Arrested individuals end up losing their jobs, losing public benefits, wasting taxpayer dollars in jail, and unable to contribute to the national economy.

    Not a Texas resident? Find out about your state at the ACLU’s theuncovery.org.

  7. Marijuana-possession biggest drug crime
    53.5% of all drug arrests in the state of Texas are for marijuana possession.
  8. Possession arrests target minorities
    Drug arrests disproportionally target black males. In 2010, Blacks made up 12.2% of the Texas population, but accounted for over a quarter of marijuana possession arrests. Blacks are on average 2.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, despite the fact that Blacks and Whites use marijuana in equal amounts. Finally, five of the nation’s top 15 counties for highest black arrest rates for marijuana possession are in Texas.

  9. Latinos not accounted for
    Latino arrests are generally counted as racially “white” arrests, meaning that far less whites are arrested than the above data indicates. Thus, the disparity between White and Black arrests is even greater than assumed, while the discrimination facing Latinos goes unaccounted for.
  10. Not a “gateway drug”
    Recent studies (including this study issued by the federal government) indicate that there is no causal relationship between marijuana use and use of other drugs.
  11. Pot safer with regulation
    If pot were regulated like alcohol, not only would it be taxable, but it would be much safer for customers. Legitimate vendors and FDA regulation would ensure products were not diluted by potentially harmful additives. Additionally, a reduction in black market sales will make access for minors more difficult. Legalization might also allow an open discourse about how to use pot safely.
  12. Legalization increases state revenue
    Though reports about the extent of marijuana revenues are conflicting, the fact is that any tax on marijuana will cause Texas to benefit largely from legalization. The relief to the Texas court and criminal justice systems in less arrests and people sent to jail will only add to legalization’s financial benefits. Some data shows that full legalization could save the state $250,000,000.
  13. Medical marijuana bill introduced
    Two recently introduced bills in the Texas Legislature, HB 3785 and SB 1989 would legalize cannabis for medical purposes. These are the most far-reaching and comprehensive of any medical marijuana bill yet introduced.
  14. Complete deregulation bill introduced
    State Representative David Simpson recently filed a bill that would remove any mention of the drug from state law, effectively completely deregulating it.
  15. 24 states have legalized
    24 other states have already legalized marijuana for medical uses.

  16. Legalization ≠ more marijuana use
    There is little consensus among researchers about whether legalization and decriminalization lead to more marijuana use. Some studies indicate that there are no long term effects of legalization on use.
  17. Reduce black market demand
    By creating a legitimate market for marijuana, legalization will reduce black market demand. This will then weaken organized crime in our cities and across our southern border.
  18. Provides valuable medical assistance
    Marijuana has shown to have valuable medical uses for those suffering from illnesses such as: chronic pain, PTSD, seizures, and Alzheimers. Marijuana also stimulates appetite and relieves chemo-given nausea. It might even prevent the spread of cancer.
  19. Marijuana a low-risk drug
    Unlike many other drugs, including alcohol, marijuana is not lethal and not often addictive.
  20. Colorado is doing fine
    Colorado has made money, relieved its criminal justice systems, and maintained productivity despite full legalization.

Texas Police Have a Drug Problem and Black Texans are Paying for it

Find out why Texas is second in the nation in total arrests for marijuana possession, wasting nearly $300 million in state taxpayer money on a failed “War on Drugs.”

If you have not taken the quiz yet, please click here to take the quiz before viewing the answers.

Selective Enforcement Quiz—Answers & Explanations

1. _____ of the nation’s top 15 counties for highest black arrest rates are in Texas
A. 1
B. 2
C. 4
D. 5

Five of the nation’s top 15 counties for highest black arrest rates for marijuana possession are in Texas—Chambers (2nd), Cooke (3rd), Kleberg (7th), Hopkins (9th), and Van Zandt (13th). Harris County ranks fourth in the nation for number of blacks arrested for marijuana possession, while Dallas County is among the country’s top 25.

2. In Texas marijuana arrests make up _____ percent of drug arrests.
A. 12
B. 27
C. 38
D. 53

In 2010, Texas was second in the nation in number of marijuana-possession arrests, which made up more than 53 percent of all drug arrests in the state.

3. In 2010, Blacks make up 12.2 percent of the population but accounted for more than __________ of marijuana possession.
A. half
B. a third
C. a quarter
D. a fifth

In 2010 blacks made up 12.2 percent of the Texas population but accounted for more than a quarter of arrests for marijuana possession. Statewide, blacks are 2.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

4. Blacks use marijuana at…
A. roughly equal rates to whites.
B. much higher rates than whites.
C. slightly lower rates than whites.
D. much lower rates than whites.

Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, yet blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested across the nation for marijuana possession. According to the ACLU’s report, the significant increase in marijuana arrest rates over the last 10 years is largely due to the steep rise in arrests of blacks. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of marijuana arrests in this country increased by 51%.

5. Texas ranks __________ in the nation in total arrests for marijuana possession.

A. first
B. second
C. third
D. fourth

Texas ranks second in the nation in total arrests for marijuana possession, wasting nearly $300 million in state taxpayer money on a failed “War on Drugs.”

6. Texas is the only state with two counties appearing in the nation’s top five for racial disparity.
A. True
B. False

It’s the only state with two counties appearing in the nation’s top five for racial disparity—with Van Zandt at number one and Cooke at number four.

Want to learn more about selective enforcement of marijuana laws in Texas? Get the full report, Texas specific facts, and the letters we sent to law enforcement agencies on our website.

Who’s The Criminal When Austin Police Infiltrate Protestors and Encourage Commission of Felonies?

By Debbie Russell

Editor’s Note: The Harris County hearing was reset for three weeks from today. State District Judge Joan Campbell told the prosecutors she was “floored” that the role of an Austin
police detective has not been disclosed. 

Our friends at the ACLU-MA have already provided the linear version of events here. A more detailed account by Jordan Smith of The Austin Chronicle is here. First to break the news was an active Occupy Austin participant, Kit O’Connell, blogging here at FiredogLake.com, which includes the most relevant portions of the transcript of the hearing in Houston last week that brought to light these activities.
On Wednesday, September 5, in a Harris County court, a judge will rule to proceed forward or move to dismiss, essentially by suppressing much of the prosecution’s evidence against the Occupiers.

Background: Across the United States, urban police departments prioritize the drug war and the so-called “war on terror” over simply rooting out violent criminals. The war on drugs targets non-violent, low-level users for the most part, in an effort to log higher arrest numbers such that it appears they are doing their job. The war on terror, formerly the purview of federal entities, and now being done in conjunction with them, takes many forms including: data-mining; spying on people without prior cause; infiltration of activist groups (many times acting as provocateurs); and the use of military tactics to chill free speech.

Case in point: Evidence is mounting that an undercover Austin Police detective induced members of Occupy Austin to commit felony obstruction of a roadway during a demonstration in Houston in December 2011. Or, did he – and two colleagues – intervene in protester plans in order to keep them, and police and firefighters responding to the Houston protest, safe?

The big question is did Austin Police Chief Acevedo order or approve the operation? There’s no doubt that it happened…one of the undercovers proudly admitted it in a court hearing last week. He said he pushed for activists to “step it up” and suggested building lock boxes – a riskier action than simply linking arms to block a roadway. The problem is, participants didn’t know it was “felony” risky! Never before had this action brought more than a misdemeanor charge, but an assistant district attorney in Harris County found a way to bump it up by claiming the lock boxes could have been hiding explosives (a sad irony since the real activists are committed to non-violence).The main risk with lockboxes is that they can be harmful to the users depending on how public safety officials choose to remove them.

Bottom line: Those in charge of our public safety not only lied about who they were and encouraged riskier actions than were being initially planned, but they bought the materials, assembled them and delivered the “criminal instruments” to the activists, putting them at risk of injury and unintended commission of a felony. In no way did this activity by APD protect anyone from harm. In fact, it created it.

Debbie Russell is an Austin-based activist and ACLU of Texas volunteer.

ACLU of Texas agrees with Pat Robertson!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

When Pat Robertson comes out in favor of legalizing marijuana, the world listens!  The evangelical leader believes that people should not be sent to jail for marijuana possession, and cites the billions of dollars it currently costs taxpayers as one of his reasons for favoring legalization.

Robertson recognizes that the war on drugs has been an expensive failure.  His answer: Treat marijuana just like alcohol.  Robertson thinks  the nation has gone overboard on the concept of being tough on crime, and says it makes no sense to send somebody to  jail for possession of a joint.

The self-declared hero of the hippie culture made headlines in 2010 when he publically supported ending mandatory prison sentences for marijuana possession, arguing that putting young people in jail hurt their futures.

Groups across the US in favor of legalizing marijuana are hoping that Robertson’s voice on this issue will sway his followers and others to recognize the financial and societal benefits of legalization.

At the ACLU of Texas, we work on many ways to decrease over-incarceration; reforming drug laws to keep drug offenders out of jail and putting them into more effective and less expensive treatment programs is one of them.

Robertson believes on this one, he’s on the right side.  We couldn’t agree more.

Do you care about drug reform in Texas?  Sign up for e-alerts and help make a difference!

Smart-on-crime: Keep non-violent drug offenders out of jail

By Terri Burke

According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston police miss the good ole days when they could slap a felony charge and lock people away for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine.  The vice president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization actually advocates throwing drug users behind bars for trace possession because “they” are the type of individuals who commit burglary and robbery. I didn’t realize Minority Report was about Houston.  I must have missed the part of the Constitution that permits police to arrest and jail individuals for crimes they have not yet committed.

HPD’s ire centers around a decision made by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos in January, 2010 when she decided the county would stop prosecuting trace drug crimes as felonies. The ACLU of Texas applauds her smart-on-crime decision, and hopes she sticks to her principles.

Why is this issue so important to Texas?

–          Cost: The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council estimates that since this policy has been implemented, there have been 400 fewer inmates in jail on any given day.   At a cost of between $45 and $65 per prisoner per day, this policy saves taxpayers between $6.5 and $9.4 million on an annual basis.  These resources would be better spent on efforts to decrease the occurrences of dangerous crimes that pose a threat to Texas, or to create more drug treatment centers that would help people get back on the right track.

–          Public health: To effectively end drug abuse, drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue instead of as a criminal issue. This is a simple fact. Treatment – not incarceration – lowers drug use.  In fact, states with higher rates of drug incarceration actually have higher rates of drug use. Without effective treatment, drug addicts, once released from jail, will likely end up back behind bars.

–          Institutional racism: On a national level, African Americans comprise 13 percent of the US population and 14 percent of drug users.  Yet, they make up 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes.  In Texas, 8 out of 9 regional narcotic task forces search African Americans for drugs more often than they search whites –no wonder this racial discrepancy exists.

–          Community: Most drug users and addicts are non-violent offenders. And they are real people, with real families and real jobs.    Sending a non-violent parent with a drug problem to jail instead of treatment is detrimental to the family and the community.  More than half the people in Texas prisons are parents and sending first-time and non-violent offenders to jail instead of treatment further harms their children.  Children who have a parent in prison are five times more likely to commit crimes themselves. Some of these children also end up in the foster care system – at an additional expense to the taxpayer.  In addition, people with felony convictions have a much harder time finding work after they have done their jail time, which leads to struggling families and economically depressed communities.  It is better for society as a whole to treat first time and non-violent offenders than to incarcerate them.

We couldn’t agree more with State District Judge Michael McSpadden, who advocates for more drug treatment options and giving drug addicts a second chance.  The war on drugs has been an expensive failure and it is past time to change gears.

Terri Burke is the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, headquartered in Houston.

A Glimmer of Hope in Texas’ Approach to the War on Drugs

By: Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist

June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world’s largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.

The federal government’s failed “war on drugs” has had a devastating impact on Texas. From the now infamous Tulia and Hearne drug arrest scandals, to the millions of dollars wasted through anti-drug trafficking programs, Texas’ drug policies have eroded our liberties and squandered our tax dollars.

But hope is not lost in Texas. While it’s true that the state’s close proximity to the horrific “war on drugs”-related violence in Mexico has fueled the adoption of some “we must surrender our liberty to ensure our security”-type legislation, there have been some positive changes as well. The cost of the “war on drugs” has forced our legislators to look at alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, and racial profiling scandals have forced needed changes in state laws governing criminal trials. While we cannot count on a smart drug policy in Texas anytime soon, a glimmer of hope is finally on the horizon.

For starters, the need to rationally address Texas’ massive corrections budget, in part fueled by the large number of inmates sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses, has led to a number of positive changes. The call for alternatives to incarceration, in Texas and across the country, has also benefited from “a growing belief among state lawmakers that prosecuting drug offenders aggressively often fails to treat their underlying addiction problems and can result in offenders cycling in and out of prisons for years.

Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at reducing the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses. Instead of building new and costly prisons, the legislature has increased the use of probation and provided increased funding for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs. And, as the numbers show, concerns about any coinciding decrease in public safety are unfounded: as Right on Crime pointed out, “serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.”

And there’s more good news! In response to drug task force scandals in Tulia, Hearne, and elsewhere involving the falsifying of government records, witness tampering, fabricating evidence, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, selling drugs to children, and large-scale racial profiling, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that prohibits the conviction of people for drug offenses based solely on the word of an undercover informant. Many of the innocent individuals (mostly African-American men) in those cases were convicted based on testimony by sworn officers and informants with checkered pasts (to put it nicely).

So, while we still face the old and discredited zero-sum security/liberty rhetoric, real progress has been made in Texas to reduce the negative impact of the 40 year-old “war on drugs” for all Texans. Thus, hope is not lost!

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