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Perry Chills on Pot Decriminalization

Texas Gov comes out in support of less punitive drug policy

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Jan. 31, 2014

Was it the altitude?
Was it the altitude?
Illustration by 'Chronicle' art staff

During a panel discussion last week at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Gov. Rick Perry made national headlines by saying not only that Washington and Colorado had every right to legalize pot, but also that he's long been a supporter of drug decriminalization policies in Texas.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

Perry's comments, made on a panel with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former United Nations Secretary Gen­eral Kofi Annan, reiterated his traditional "states' rights" stance. Just as with regulating abortion, states should have the right to legalize pot, he said. He cautioned that he is "not for the legalization of drugs," but that he does favor less punitive drug policy, and supports programs such as drug courts: "after 40 years of the war on drugs, I can't change what happened in the past," he said, as reported by the Austin American-States­man. "What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that's what we've done over the last decade."

That Perry is now on the record as a supporter of drug decriminalization made headlines across the country, and the press releases of a handful of drug-reform organizations. And, frankly, it is news in Texas, despite Perry's suggestion to the contrary.

Indeed, modest decriminalization reforms – like Houston Rep. Harold Dutton's perennial bid for statewide marijuana decriminalization – have never caught on, despite the amount of money that could be saved and the number of individuals who would be diverted from the criminal justice system. One has to wonder whether that measure might have been more popular with Perry's public support. Dutton's bill has been filed during each legislative session under Perry's governorship, so there's been plenty of time to do just that.

It is true that Perry has supported drug court reforms – and that drug courts are a good tool to divert drug users from jail. The problem, however, is that the number of counties that actually have drug diversion programs is relatively small, as is the pool of individuals eligible for drug courts compared to the total number of individuals arrested for drug possession each year in Texas. Had Perry come out in favor of a drug treatment measure proposed in 2007 (one that sailed out of committee and through the Senate before getting hung up on the House floor), the state would have diverted larger numbers of users from jail and would already have saved, between 2008 and 2012, at least $471 million.

And those measures that have passed seem to have had only a limited impact – including the so-called cite-and-release bill passed in 2007, which allowed officers to ticket instead of arrest individuals busted (with identification and in their home county) for a variety of misdemeanors, including minor pot possession.

According to yearly crime data compiled by the Department of Public Safety, arrests for drug possession have steadily increased during Perry's tenure. Arrests for pot possession have remained a large percentage of all drug-possession arrests, while racial disparities – with a disproportionate percentage of blacks facing arrest – persist.

In 2001, for example, Perry's first year in office, a total of 84,828 adults and 9,060 juveniles were arrested for drug possession. Of those, 55% of adults and 78% of juveniles were arrested for marijuana possession. A flash forward to 2012 – five years after passage of cite-and-release, and the most recent year for which there are numbers – reveals 124,766 adults and 8,132 juveniles arrested for drug possession. And of those, 59% of the adults and a staggering 81% of the juveniles were arrested for pot possession. Over the entire 11-year period covered by DPS data, the percentage of adults arrested for pot possession has fluctuated some – from a low of 50% in 2006 to a high of 61% in 2010 – while the percentage of juveniles arrested on that same charge has remained stable at around 80%.

In other words, Perry's comments in Switzerland may help to encourage other conservatives to be more open to the idea of announcing support for decriminalization measures – but with Perry now a lame duck guv, they seem to be of little practical import in Texas.

Nonetheless, criminal justice advocates argue that Perry's stated position does fit within an overarching framework of being smarter on crime and employing evidence-based practices to keep communities safe and to effectively rehabilitate individuals. And holding candidates' feet to the fire on the issue will be the job of Texas voters in this election year.

Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, agrees that while Texas has a long way to go to be truly smart on crime, Perry's newest proclamations have at least symbolic impact. "They're symbolic of where Texas is going – and where we're going nationally," she said. "I don't see one state proud to say 'we lock up non-violent offenders.' I don't see even one state saying that." Though for now at least, they may continue to do so.

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