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June 10th, 2014:

When might marijuana be legalized in Texas?


Very interesting debate going on in the Baker Institute Blog about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas. Here are the posts they’ve published, in decreasing order of optimism:

Texas will legalize medical marijuana in 2015 and regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol in 2017

Texas will legalize marijuana in 2019

Texas voters will push for marijuana legalization by 2019

When will marijuana be legal in Texas? Maybe not till 2023

Marijuana won’t be legal in Texas anytime soon

I’ve discussed this issue before myself, in response to this Trib poll analysis that suggested support for pot legalization was broad but shallow. My personal crystal ball doesn’t extend beyond 2019. In 2023, we’ll have had three gubernatorial elections and another round of redistricting, not to mention nine years for public opinion to shift. Nine years ago, we were gearing up to pass that awful constitutional amendment against same sex marriage. Needless to say, things are different now, nationally and in the state, even if the change in attitude isn’t reflected in state government yet. Point being, who the hell knows what attitudes and the political atmosphere will be like in 2023? I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

I was going to write a detailed response to the last post above, written by Rice poli sci prof Mark Jones, but Grits beat me to it and mostly said what I wanted to say. So let me crib from him:

Where Jones’ analysis goes south is his odd assumption that “legalization” or other drug-policy reform couldn’t happen while Texas is run by Republicans. He thinks 2023 will be the first gubernatorial race Texas Democrats can win but cautions that pot legalization won’t be high on their priority list. But that reading ignores divisions within the GOP that play out along the pro-free market, less-government, “Right on Crime” axis touted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. There are Republicans in the Texas Legislature who are perfectly comfortable suggesting the state reduce criminal justice costs by reducing the number of things we criminalize.

Jones doesn’t appear fully aware how much criminal-justice reform legislation has passed since the GOP first came to power in Texas. Heck, often advocates themselves have been surprised, both by reforms that inexplicably had legs and more modest proposals that seemingly couldn’t buy a break. Any Bayesian prediction of the odds must be moderated by the rodeo truism: There’s never been a horse that can’t be rode, never been a cowboy can’t be throwed. A fractured, ultra-conservative GOP presents opportunities for peeling off factions, much like when Democrats controlled Texas as a one-party state a generation or two ago.

Grits believes framing the debate in terms of “legalization” does a disservice to the much-more moderate proposals likely to actually make it out of committee in 2015. In the near term, the issue isn’t so much “will Texas legalize” but “will Texas reduce penalties for low-level pot possession?” Right now, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor in Texas, meaning in theory the defendant faces a threat of up to six months in the county jail. Because the defendant’s liberty is at risk, the county must pay for an attorney if they’re indigent. Changing low-level pot possession to a Class C fine-only offense – or, some have suggested, a non-criminal “civil” citation akin to those given out by red-light cameras – would move low-level non-violent offenders out of the jail, save counties money on lawyers, and possibly even generate a new stream of fine revenue from future ticket writing.

I agree that this issue doesn’t fall cleanly along party lines – there are definitely conservatives for criminal justice reform, and there has been progress on that front in recent legislative sessions. That said, I find it telling that the Texas voters will push for marijuana legalization by 2019 post, written by the assistant executive director of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), most prominently cited a bill from the last session by Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton. Be that as it may, I definitely agree that decriminalization, which will likely mean reduction of the crime of pot possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, as laid out in Rep. Dutton’s bill, will be the first step and is what reformers of all stripes should focus on. I will admit I’m less optimistic than Grits is about action on this in 2015. I feel like the current crop of Republicans, especially in the Senate, just don’t care about this. There’s nothing in the toxic Republican Party platform to suggest change of that kind is in the air.

Texas would do well to get that far (reduce penalties to a Class C for less than 2 oz) by 2017 or ’19; next year would be possible but optimistic. Whenever it happens, that would be a huge get. From there, to me it depends on what happens in Colorado and Washington. If it turns out to be no big deal and a new source of tax revenue we’re just missing, legalization by 2023 is perhaps on the outer edge of possible. That’s not because Democrats might be back in power by then but because the Lege will covet the money and public opinion is rapidly changing. On the other hand, if there’s some horrible, unforeseen harm that befalls those states, that might push things back. Any prediction on such matters beyond a five year time horizon IMO is tantamount to fiction writing.

Texas could eventually alter its marijuana policies to the point where they could be dubbed “legalization,” but only after a series of false starts, half-measures and incremental steps that will each take time to pass and implement. It’s not uncommon for far less controversial legislation to take two or three sessions (4-6 years) or more to pass. And marijuana bills will not fly under the radar.

I agree that the most likely fulcrum for change will be a change in public attitudes, which will likely follow if the Colorado and Washington experiments are successful. However, the Republicans that are getting elected these days aren’t interested in generating extra revenue. They might be persuaded to reduce penalties for pot on cost-cutting grounds, but all they want to do with the money they free up is cut taxes. They don’t care about extra revenue because they don’t want to spend it on anything. Again, I don’t want to speculate three or four elections out, but that much will have to change to put legalization, and not just decriminalization, on the menu.

UPDATE: PDiddie has more.

More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report

I’m not the only one that wasn’t impressed by Chief McClelland’s response.

[Burglary victim Heather] Heinke’s experience is not unusual in the nation’s fourth-largest city. A recent HPD staffing study says that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 hit-and-run crashes and 3,000 assaults were simply set aside last year without a follow-up investigation. Houston police commanders told researchers they didn’t have enough staff to review the cases, even those with promising leads.

“It seems like (crime has) increased, and to (the point of) not being able to leave your home in a peaceful state of mind,” Heinke said. “You kind of feel helpless … you feel you’re out there exposed, like you’re out there on your own.”

The report’s finding that thousands of crimes aren’t being fully investigated, although it may not be unique to Houston as a major city, has angered citizens, civil rights groups and victims and surprised some City Council members. The disclosure came shortly after the Police Department in April disciplined eight homicide detectives for either ignoring or conducting shoddy investigations into nearly two dozen deaths.


The tally of unworked cases came as no surprise to former Houston police investigators, former Police Chief C.O. Bradford and union officials.

They described a daily triage by Houston police lieutenants and sergeants, who review reports of new crimes and determine which have no leads or “solvability factors.” Then, the supervisors assign what they consider the most solvable and egregious crimes to investigators. The others, despite having leads, are simply “suspended” and may be investigated if they are linked to another crime.

Mike Knox, a former gang investigator for the Police Department, said he’s surprised there were only 15,000 burglary and theft cases that were not investigated.

“I’m sure HPD would love to investigate every single case, but we just don’t have the manpower and money to do that. So we go after the ones who are doing the most harm,” Knox said.

Bradford, who resigned as chief in 2003 and now serves as a city councilman, noted there are fewer police on the force today than when he was in command.

“There’s not enough personnel,” he said. “You only have so many investigators in the burglary and theft division.”

The researchers hired to study HPD’s staffing noted that while Houston has a lower staffing ratio than many large city police departments, such data is relevant but not all-telling. Major cities in the Northeast that have urban centers that developed “vertically,” and are denser, have traditionally had higher ratios of police officers. Southwestern cities that have developed horizontally are less dense and tend to have lower ratios.

Houston’s police-to-citizen ratio of 2.3 officers for every 1,000 residents is lower than those of Chicago (4.7), New York City (5.1), Detroit (4.4.) and Washington, D.C. (6.3.).

Rania Mankarious, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, said she is frustrated that more investigators don’t call on the nonprofit agency to help them solve cases. HPD is the agency’s major sponsor, but she said some investigators don’t want to go through the “hassle” of providing information about unsolved cases.

Others are not familiar with the services provided by Crime Stoppers, which have led to the solving of 30,000 felony cases in three decades of operation.

“I’m angry in the sense that we’re a free resource, this is all we do, and we need to be utilized,” Mankarious said, adding that cash rewards paid for information are funded by probation fees.

See here and here for the background. Let’s be clear that since the report talks about the need for more investigators – 27 is the number cited – the officers-to-citizens ratio isn’t particularly useful. Uniformed officers aren’t the one charged with investigating crimes. Obviously, most investigators will start out as uniformed officers, and I’m happy to have a discussion about what needs to be done to promote more investigators to help close that gap. But let’s keep our eye on the ball.

I guess I’m just skeptical about the calls for vastly increasing the size of HPD. I’m going to need some questions answered before I buy into any of that. If crime is declining, as he report states, why hasn’t HPD been able to keep up? How long has this problem of not investigating cases with “workable leads” been going on? Has there ever been a time when that wasn’t a problem? If so, what has changed since then? If not, why have we never talked about it before now? Surely we didn’t need a third party consultant to point that out if it’s always been the case. HPD’s budget has increased considerably in recent years. What is the money being spent on? What assurances do we have that the parallel problems in the homicide division won’t recur? It would be nice if when all this gets to City Council if someone on Council would drop the deference and do their best Jolanda Jones impersonation. Ask questions like a defense attorney. Let’s really understand what’s going on before we start proposing solutions.

Competition is good, except when it isn’t

I honestly don’t get this.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

As the Houston City Council prepares to vote Wednesday on whether to make its longtime back-tax collector share the lucrative work with a rival, city officials are getting ample pushback from the man responsible for collecting the taxes.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan is not the only one opposed to the idea, which he dubbed a “cramdown” from the city. Texas’ dominant collection vendor for local governments and the city’s collector of property taxes for three decades, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, is not keen on loosening its grip.


If the City Council approves Wednesday, Perdue would get a batch of the city’s delinquent accounts, estimated at about 3 percent of the total delinquent tax roll. The accounts would be drawn from three school districts for which Perdue already collects.

If one firm outperforms the other, it will be rewarded with more accounts to collect. Houston is moving to this “competitive” approach in all its collections in hopes of increasing revenue, City Attorney David Feldman said.

“They are both good firms, they both offer good service,” Feldman said. “It really comes down to a question of competition.”

Hogwash, said Sullivan, whose office is responsible for collecting city property taxes and would need to accommodate the multi-vendor collections model. Feldman and Sullivan have been in talks over the idea for a year, but you would not know it from the tax man’s comments.

“This is not about competitiveness at all. It’s smoke and mirrors that Feldman is using to try to convince council members that it’s a good thing to do,” Sullivan said. “When you are given business and then you are judged on what you do or don’t do, or perform or don’t perform, that’s performance, it’s not competitiveness. It’s deceptive.”

All due respect, but I couldn’t care less who performs this function for the city. All I do care about is that the job gets done effectively. Maybe there’s a good reason why a sole provider is best, but speaking as a bystander it’s not apparent to me. I really don’t think this makes that much difference one way or the other, but for curiosity’s sake I’d be interested to see how these two firms did in a head to head contest. Who knows, maybe we’d learn something interesting.

Texting 911

This is clearly the way of the future, though I admit that I myself would be a bit leery of using it right now.

With eight of 10 Americans using their cellphones to send or receive text messages, some emergency response centers are updating their technology. Among them are centers in 12 Texas counties, hoping to accommodate situations in which calling 911 may be risky or impossible.

The text-to-911 service is an early step in a national initiative to modernize the emergency call system. The initial deployment in Texas, where the service is available at 27 call centers for Verizon or T-Mobile users, is one of the largest so far in the country.

Text-to-911 technology, which allows a user to send a text to 911, also makes emergency response more accessible to the deaf community. Phone calls remain the priority, officials said, because voice calls have better location-targeting capabilities.


North Texas counties were among the early adopters, partly because the call centers run by the North Central Texas Council of Governments already had an Internet-based calling system that enabled the cost-free installation of text-to-911. Call centers with older equipment would need to spend anywhere from $80,000 to $8 million to enable the service, depending on their size, said Christy Williams, the chief 911 program officer with the council.

LeAnna Russell, the system’s 911 database supervisor, said that while the several 911 texts sent in North Texas so far have not been the most dramatic of circumstances, they have been important. “We’re just glad they’re using the system,” she added.

Williams, who will become the president of the National Emergency Number Association next month, said the long-term goal was to make sure emergency response technology kept up with cellular technology used by consumers.

“We’re ripping out and replacing an infrastructure that’s over 45 years old,” she said. “Once that’s done, we can provide enhanced features for citizens and public safety responders.”

Potential future advances in 911 technology include incorporating video and photo messaging in emergency response systems and allowing different 911 call centers to share maps and databases, which could cut costs and improve efficiency, Fontes said.

“In a next-generation 911 environment,” he said, “when a car crash happens, people could move around, take pictures of the scene and the license plates, and all of this information will be pushed through the responders and hospitals before they even arrive.”

My initial reaction to this was one of skepticism – I thought, if I’m having an emergency, I’d rather have a live person I can talk to on the other end of the line – but the more I think about it, the more I can see the utility of this. For one thing, texting would be mighty handy in any situation where making noise could be dangerous. For another, in the context of an app you could attach a photo or other useful evidence, as you now can for non-emergency purposes as with Houston’s 311 app. Down the line I could imagine integrating Skype or Facetime or some other video chat function. Not many people use this now, but that will surely change. I figure by the time this is rolled out nationally, it will be an indispensable tool in the kit.