On the frontlines: drug reform in Texas

Could marijuana be legalized in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.? By Nathan Jones.
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September 12, 2014

For the first time in decades, drug reform advocates feel as if the tide of history is turning in their favour. Recent changes have been impressive. Uruguay has moved toward the legalization of marijuana and 20-plus U.S. states have some form of medical marijuana system in place with more on the way. Polling data now shows that a majority of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. The debate on marijuana has taken on an air of inevitability. But marijuana legalization must be viewed as an uneven process with a long historical arc. How is the reform process playing out in conservative states such as Texas?

To answer this question we at Rice University’s Baker Institute recently ran a series asking the question, “when will marijuana legalization come to Texas?” We received varied analyses from key experts, addressing if and when Texas might legalize marijuana and how the wording of the debate matters. But will marijuana legalization be the silver bullet against the Mexican cartels?

Rob Kampia, the Executive Director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), argued that marijuana reform will come to Texas in 2019. In his excellent piece, he provided the kind of inside baseball (including the amount individuals are donating to the lobbying effort) you can only get from the individual leading the lobbying effort. Kampia is optimistic about his chances in Texas in part because of the growing recognition that marijuana is safer than alcohol. He predicts some movement on medical marijuana by 2017 and full legalization by 2019. Most interestingly, he points to the importance of Texas in terms of size and geography as being a key tipping point for the U.S. federal government’s final shift toward marijuana legalization.

The MPP has targeted Texas for lobbying efforts because of its polling on marijuana. One poll showed 49 per cent support in the state while another sponsored by MPP that phrased the question “should marijuana be regulated like alcohol” had 58 per cent support. Here we can see that the wording of the question mattered. As Steve Nolin, the head of Houston Norml argues in his piece, people have misconceptions about marijuana legalization and his organization has changed the discourse by focusing on “marijuana regulation.” Like alcohol, marijuana will be a regulated commodity with specific rules and regulations that keep it out of the hands of children, etc. Thus the discourse on marijuana reform in Texas is changing toward a nuanced view of a regulatory model instead of a bifurcated prohibition or legalization view. In this vein the Baker Institute drug policy program has partnered with the South Texas College of Law on model legislation project where legal students write model marijuana legislation for the state of Texas.

Others are not so optimistic. Director of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas Jerry Epstein is an advocate of marijuana policy reform, but believes that it is politically difficult given the political structure of Texas which allows committee chairman to table debate on topics. He pointed to the support for needle exchange programs but the failure of the bill in the Texas legislature despite the votes to support it.

Rice University’s Political Science Department Chair Mark Jones points to the political structures in Texas as the reason he does not think marijuana reform will occur in Texas in the next decade. He points specifically to the lack of an initiative system as is present in Washington, Colorado that have legalized recreational marijuana and the fact that most Texas legislative races are won or lost in the primaries not the general elections. Zoe Russell of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) points to the support her group represents within the Republican Party and how marijuana reform is actually in line with conservative values.

Are policymakers series about reform in Texas?

Drug policy reform will likely be a multistep and long term process in Texas. The current stage has focused on drug courts and diversion.   Texas Governor Rick Perry’s comments in Davos Switzerland indicated that even he, a conservative Republican Governor, was moving toward a more moderate approach. Texas’ value on fiscal responsibility makes necessary a recognition that criminalization and incarceration is very costly.

In Houston, Texas’ largest city, the prosecutors’ race now includes drug policy positions. Both candidates are promoting diversion on marijuana but the republican and democrat are sharply divided on how trace cases (cases involving trace amounts of cocaine) should be treated. Individuals are still arrested, but nonviolent marijuana offenders are generally shunted off to drug courts which represent treatment over punishment.

This is a significant departure from the punishment and criminalization approach, but reform advocates argue this still saddles individuals with arrest records and court dates. Further, the arrests take law enforcement off the street for hours meaning patrol time is lost and they are not able to respond to violent crimes as Joe Ptak of Texans Smart on Crime has advocated.

But will marijuana reform impact Mexican cartels?

As some argue, marijuana may account for as little as 15 per cent of Mexican drug network revenues. This suggests that even if marijuana policy reform were to take universal hold overnight, it would not destroy the “cartels.” On the other hand as Alejandro Hope has pointed out, the Sinaloa cartel makes a larger proportion of its revenues from the trafficking of marijuana. He estimates the Sinaloa cartel gets about 50 per cent of its profits from marijuana while other cartels get about 30 percent of revenues from marijuana. This is consistent with other data points including the proliferation of panga boat (open hulled boats that land on the California coast carrying humans or drugs) cases in California which suggest that the Sinaloa cartel (which operates on the pacific coastal side) is continuing to traffic marijuana into the United States despite the legal medical marijuana markets. These medical markets, with varying degrees of regulation, clearly cannot satisfy the demand of the illicit medical and recreational markets in states without medical markets.

Thus, despite deepening reform, illicit networks continue to satisfy unmet demand. The marijuana reform process has not proven a panacea or silver bullet against drug traffickers and organized crime in these early stages.

Other drug trafficking organizations such as Los Zetas may be even more impervious to reform efforts. They have a greater proportion of their business model focused on kidnapping and extortion of the illicit and licit worlds as Mazzitelli argues. These still get significant profits from marijuana but likely a much lower proportion of overall profits than the Sinaloa cartel. Thus marijuana policy reform would likely have a minimal impact upon their business models. Given Los Zetas’ territory, which is just south of the Texas border, this would likely have minimal impact upon the most concerning levels of violence for Texas.

Marijuana reform could also impact other drug markets. For example, if doctors can write medical marijuana prescriptions instead of opiate-based pain medications, the number of those who move on to heroin may be reduced thus reducing the growing heroin market largely supplied by Mexico.

Marijuana reform will not eliminate Mexican drug networks given their high levels of diversification of criminal activities and diversified drug revenue streams, but it could deny them significant profits and that ultimately could help both violence levels in Mexico and some of Texas’ border security concerns.


Also in the series


Canada's pot policies: what happened?

An interview with Dan Werb on what changes in U.S. drug law mean for Canada.

Lessons from Uruguay’s drug reform

Ten factors any country debating marijuana legalization should consider. By Eva Salinas.

Changing the Drug Policy Narrative

Militarized strategies have failed to win the war on drugs. We need a new approach that puts people at the centre, says Robert Muggah.

A less-violent, illicit drug market? It is possible

If we were serious about harm reduction, we would manage drug markets, not crack down on them, argues Jean Daudelin.