One important trend in criminal justice reform is state efforts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. At present, 29 states and the District of Columbia have some form of legalized marijuana. Approximately one-fifth of all United States citizens live in a jurisdiction in which marijuana is legal for adult use. Support for legal marijuana is at an all-time high (pardon the pun).
To some degree, American states have recognized that the war on marijuana is a tremendous waste of resources. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), marijuana arrests still account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. This translates to billions of dollars spent policing and prosecuting offenses involving a substance that most people agree is less harmful than alcohol.
Unfortunately, marijuana is still illegal for all purposes in Texas. The latest push to decriminalize marijuana – House Bill 81 – to come out of the Texas legislature expired before the legislative session ended in May 2017. That bill would have changed the penalty for an ounce or less of marijuana to a civil fine of up to $250.
Although time ran out for House Bill 81, some elected District Attorneys in Texas have changed their prosecution policies to apparently reflect growing sentiment for marijuana legalization. For example, in February 2017, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced a new misdemeanor marijuana diversion program which will redirect many low-level marijuana offenders into a decision-making class, avoiding costly and wasteful marijuana prosecutions.
Although efforts by some Texas prosecutors to “de-prioritize” marijuana prosecutions is a good start, we are not particularly optimistic that sensible marijuana legislation will be passed in Texas anytime soon. The strain of conservatism espoused to by Governor Greg Abbott and his acolytes foolishly sees the enforcement of marijuana laws as a moral imperative. This wrongheaded approach was recently echoed by United States Attorney Jeff Sessions who rejected the notion that any use of marijuana could ever be recreational and has inexplicably said that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.
With Sessions publicly making such plainly ignorant statements and all but vowing to return the United States to the failed war on drugs, the marijuana industry is understandably worried. Currently, marijuana merchants are protected by an Obama-era provision in the federal budget that limits the Justice Department from spending money to block state laws that allow medicinal marijuana. Also, under Obama, the federal government did not raid dispensaries or otherwise cause problems for the marijuana industry.
Whether this may change under President Donald Trump is an open question. One consideration for Sessions and others who appear eager to return United States drug policy to the failure of the 1970’s, is that clamping down on legalized marijuana might upset voters in so-called “swing” electoral states, such as Nevada and Colorado, which both have legalized, recreational marijuana for adults. Recreational marijuana is strongly supported by residents in both states and the Trump Administration surely understands that interfering in those states’ affairs could be politically hazardous. One additional factor for state governments (including Texas) to consider: There is substantial profitability in legalized marijuana. In 2016, legalized marijuana sales reached $6.7 billion. Given that all marijuana sales (including illegal marijuana) reached an estimated $53 billion, legalizing marijuana in all 50 states (plus territories) could potentially bring huge streams of revenue, for purposes of education and many other uses. Perhaps a combination of favorable public opinion and the potential for revenue might eventually sway even the most stubborn state legislators and governors to re-consider their outdated opposition to legal marijuana.