Naked City

Weed Watch: Legislators seek reduced punishment or decriminalization

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, state and local authorities combined spend nearly $8 billion each year trying to enforce federal marijuana prohibition. In a new report – titled "Crimes of Indiscretion" – NORML reports that, according to Department of Justice statistics, nearly $4 billion in costs are associated with funding police work. They also report that each marijuana-related arrest costs taxpayers more than $10,000 – yet prohibition has done little to curb use of the drug. In Texas, nearly 50,000 people were arrested in 2002 on marijuana-related charges – about half of all the drug-related arrests, and nearly 5% of all arrests. Indeed, state Rep. Harold Dutton cited these same numbers – and more – when presenting HB 254 to the House Criminal Justice committee on March 15. Dutton's bill would reduce possession of up to one ounce of marijuana to a class C misdemeanor, punishable by fine only, and would downgrade various other marijuana-possession charges. (Originally, Dutton's bill also banned the state from suspending a driver's license for individuals convicted of the downgraded misdemeanor. But Dutton removed that stipulation after learning that the feds would withhold highway funds if the state refused to revoke driving privileges for those convicted on any drug charge.) On Tuesday afternoon, Dutton pointed out that nationwide in 2003, nearly 755,000 people were arrested on marijuana-related charges, more than 90% of which were for mere pot possession. In Texas, 97% of the arrests on pot charges are for simple possession, he noted, at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $480 million per year. His is a "smart on crime" proposal, he said, that would save millions and free up law enforcement resources, and jail and prison space, which could be devoted to pursuing violent criminals.

Reps. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and Terry Hodge, D-Dallas, who are on the committee chaired by Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, were receptive to Dutton's proposal – although Hodge expressed some reluctance at requiring court-ordered substance-abuse risk assessments (which she seemed to think was somewhat superfluous and contrary to the measure's attempt at serious budget savings). Surprisingly, no one stepped up to testify against the measure and one victim advocate, Travis County's own Ellen Halbert – who served as a member of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's oversight board and is currently head of the Travis Co. District Attorney's victims assistance office – urged support for the bill in a letter presented to the committee by ACLU attorney Ann del Llano. According to Halbert, the measure makes "really good sense," and would free up resources that should be targeting offenders who really "need to be in jail." Indeed, del Llano said, the measure would make minor pot possessors "pay into the system, instead of the system [having to] lay out tax dollars" to prosecute and incarcerate them. The bill was left pending so that Dutton could amend it to provide an enhanced penalty for repeat offenders and a provision that would send those convicted under the new law to some sort of class, akin to that required for minors convicted of alcohol possession.

In other pot-related news, Vermont state Rep. Winston Dowland earlier this month introduced legislation that would legalize marijuana and create a state system for regulation and taxation akin to alcohol regulation. In a press release, Dowland said that pot prohibition has failed in his state. Approximately 10% of Vermont residents smoke pot each month, Dowland said. "Prohibition simply has not worked," he said. "How many more billions of dollars are we going to spend on this failed policy before we stop and consider whether there might not be a better way?"

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Weed Watch, marijuana, Harold Dutton, Terry Hodge, Debbie Riddle, Terry Keel, Ellen Halbert, Ann del Llano, Winston Dowland, HB 254

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