Shared from the 4/4/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Decriminalize pot

Some drugs are too dangerous to be legal, but marijuana is not one of them.

Jason Fochtman / Staff photographer

There are few downsides to modernizing Texas’ pot laws.

Arthur Davis, a retired, battle-worn first sergeant in the Marines, often says a veterans’ diversion court saved his life. That’s only partially true. While veterans court gave him a second chance after he wound up in jail during a bout with mental illness, something else helped him relieve his crippling anxiety and break free of the powerful prescription drugs that seemed to exacerbate it.

“It was marijuana,” Davis, a 51-year-old Houston native, told the editorial board. “I have my life back. I am not stuck inside with terrible anxiety. I don’t have the nightmares that used to keep me from wanting to ever go to sleep.”

When he does smoke pot, he’s breaking the law —and that’s something the veteran of four combat tours, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, wishes he didn’t have to do. Now that Texas lawmakers are working overtime in Austin to change the way we think about marijuana, Davis feels someone is finally listening.

Listening should lead to action. Lawmakers are not aiming to make pot legal, exactly, but they want to make it difficult to be arrested for having an ounce of pot. That helps people like Davis who use the drug regularly, and also occasional users. And it’s consistent with policies in big cities such as Houston and Dallas, where law enforcement has largely stopped jailing people for a little pot.

Extending such reforms statewide is only fair. Why should a few joints upend a career or threaten one’s freedom in Galveston or Laredo, when they’ll only get you a fine in Houston?

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, has authored a bill that would turn possession of smaller amounts of pot into a civil offense — with no criminal record or secondary penalties that can accompany misdemeanor drug conviction, including temporary loss of driver license, ineligibility for student aid, employment hassles or deportation for immigrants.

With revisions made in committee, Moody’s bill would allow prosecutors to seek a Class C misdemeanor criminal charge only when someone is cited a third time for possession. That’s still a cudgel too heavy for simple pot possession.

Still, the bill would be a wise next step for Texas, which has garnered a smart-on-crime reputation of late.

Moody’s bill is more than smart — it’s brave, given how strong the predictable backlash has been among mostly rural sheriffs and small-town police chiefs. Talk of lightening up on drug offenders makes some in law enforcement nervous — often for good reason, given the devastation caused by the opioid epidemic and other drug abuse.

Some drugs are too dangerous to be legal. Marijuana isn’t one of them.

Some 24 million Americans said in 2018 that they used marijuana in the past month —twice the number who abuse prescriptions and 12 times the number who use cocaine. Of the 70,000 fatal overdoses in America in 2017, nearly 50,000 were tied to opioids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths tied to pot are so rare the National Center for Health Statistics doesn’t track them.

It’s absurd that the federal government considers pot a Schedule 1 narcotic — a regressive stance that damages thousands of lives and squanders millions in law enforcement dollars.

While prospects for federal reform are dismal, it’s legal to buy, hold and smoke pot in more than a dozen states. In all but four, legal exceptions allow some medical use.

Moody’s bill is the best chance in years for Texas to catch up. It won’t be easy. His chief of staff, Ellic Sahualla, says the bill has an excellent chance of passing the House. Opposition by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick makes it dicier in the Senate.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he supports easing penalties for pot possession, but wants it to be more than a civil violation. That could make things worse, because defendants charged with Class C misdemeanors aren’t entitled to lawyers and may think less serious charges aren’t worth contesting. In fact, they’d carry a criminal drug conviction — and with it, life-altering consequences.

There are few downsides to modernizing Texas’ pot possession laws. For some folks, the benefits are profound.

Davis, who moved to Montgomery County after Hurricane Harvey swamped his Houston home, wants lawmakers to remember him and other veterans when they cast their votes: “This country was founded by men and women like myself who decided it was worth fighting for. If people like that, veterans, are telling you that this is what they need, then maybe take a chance and give them an option for something they know works.”

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