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:
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.