Gov. Rick Perry — a staunch conservative — recently told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana. Perry explained that “as the governor of the second-largest state in the country, what I can do is start us on policies that can start us on the road towards decriminalization.”
According to USA Today, Perry’s “road towards decriminalization” is focused on “drug courts” that offer an alternative to the regular criminal justice system, as well as softer penalties for some minor drug offenses. Although Perry defended his stance by stressing the importance of Texas’ 10th Amendment right to make its own decisions about marijuana legalization — appealing to the typical Republican rhetoric about states’ rights — his support for decriminalization comes as quite a surprise, considering both his conservative background and Texas’ harsh penalties for drug-related offenses.
But while Perry’s comments may initially strike some as misguided or “soft on crime,” they should come as a welcome surprise to all Texans. Marijuana arrests drain money out of our criminal justice system, exhaust prison resources and force police to focus on nonviolent, minor crimes — often at the expense of more serious ones.
In Texas, the possession, sale, transportation and cultivation of marijuana is illegal. Possession of less than two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor that carries up to a $2000 fine with the possibility of 180 days of jail time, and possession of between two and four ounces is a Class A misdemeanor, which means up to a $4000 fine with the possibility of a year of jail time. Possession of quantities greater than four ounces is a felony, carrying the possibility of even more time behind bars in a state prison.
Nationwide, marijuana arrests are strikingly high: FBI data shows police made one marijuana arrest every 42 seconds in 2012, and one every 48 seconds in 2011.
But these arrests aren’t cheap. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, it costs taxpayers $120 to arrest and book one person in an urban Texas county, and then another $62.97 for each day that the individual is detained. In 2011, Texas jails housed an average of 60,000 inmates a day: That’s $3,788,200 per day spent on incarceration. In 2010, 10 percent of total arrests in Texas for any crime were for simple drug possession — and that figure has been increasing. In other words, taxpayers spend $378,820 every day on those arrested and incarcerated for drug possession, and that number will only increase if current trends continue.
And saving the taxpayer money isn’t the only benefit of decriminalization. Drug possession arrests can take a toll on our society in other ways, and crime data on the national level make this all too obvious.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, more people were arrested in the United States in 2012 for drug abuse-related offenses than for any other crime: 1,552,432 people. In fact, law enforcement agencies made only 521,196 arrests for the entire violent crime category, meaning that there were nearly three times as many arrests for drug offenses as there were for murder, rape or aggravated assault combined. And of those arrested for drug offenses, only 17.8 percent faced charges related to the manufacture or sale of any controlled substance. A staggering 82.2 percent of people arrested for any drug-related crime were arrested for simple possession. But here’s where it gets interesting: an impressive 51.6 percent of those arrests were for marijuana possession.
Since the United States incarcerates its population at a higher rate than any other country in the world, and since Texas alone has the fourth-highest incarceration rate, we need to question our draconian marijuana policies. Is it right that the most common arrest in the country is for the mere possession of marijuana? With every arrest, we are involving another person in an arguably broken criminal justice system, and branding that person with a criminal record that will potentially make renting an apartment or getting a job nearly impossible for the rest of his or her life. In fact, Time magazine has reported that nearly a quarter of all convicts end up homeless after their release from prison, and over half are unemployed. That’s no way to rehabilitate prisoners for their eventual return to society.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry’s office, recently explained to the Texan that “the governor is against legalizing marijuana, but he believes each state ought to be able to make that decision.” She went on to clarify that drug courts are a “a successful alternative to the traditional criminal justice system for nonviolent, first time offenders” and that they have “successfully reduced recidivism in the state.” These drug courts, however, already exist and their function seems to be limited. In Travis County, for example, defendants are only eligible if they have been charged with a felony. In other words, most simple marijuana possession cases — which carry misdemeanor charges — are still handled by the traditional criminal justice system.
But Perry’s comments highlight a broader political issue: How will the Republican Party respond to the growing pro-marijuana reform consensus? The UT College Republicans declined to comment on the issue, citing a lack of an official stance and party consensus on the topic. As marijuana decriminalization moves into the mainstream of American politics, the GOP will need to figure out where it stands.
According to a 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling, 61 percent of Texans say they would like to remove criminal penalties for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, making it a civil rather than criminal offense — punishable by a fine of up to $100 with no jail time. And 41 percent of poll respondents said they strongly support changing the law in Texas to regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol. So why hasn’t the drug been decriminalized? In Texas, voters cannot place an issue on the ballot through referendum. Rather, they must wait for the Legislature to propose laws and amendments, which can slow down the process since the Legislature often acts more conservatively.
So, although we may not agree with much of what his administration does, this editorial board is happy to see Perry offer his support — albeit limited and tepid support — for marijuana decriminalization. Because the question of whether or not to decriminalize the drug is one about economics — about what we as a state want to spend our money on — and not one about crime or safety. The cost of incarcerating those arrested for simple possession of the drug is simply too high to continue such a harsh policy. According to a recent Gallup poll, for the first time in history a majority of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana for recreational use — in other words, it’s obvious that times are changing. And while it’s not realistic to think that the drug will be legalized in Texas anytime soon, Perry’s comments are certainly a step in the right direction.