FYI: Decriminalization of Cannabis Does Not Mean Weed Will Be Legal in Texas
Well, Rick Perry wants to decriminalize pot in the state of Texas. But don't start sparking up that celebratory joint just yet. It may not mean quite what you think it does.
If you haven't heard the news, Rick Perry threw out his support for marijuana decriminalization in Texas during the World Economic Forum in Switzerland recently, and it was a bit surprising, to say the least. In years past, Perry's stance on drugs has always been a bit, well, punitive, and that "decriminalization" talk sure did sound like a mighty big change of heart. But when it comes down to it, would the decriminalization that Perry is touting really mean huge policy changes on marijuana in the state of Texas?
Unfortunately, the short answer to that question is "no." Decriminalization is not equivalent to legalization of marijuana in any form or fashion, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. There are some big differences between the two terms, and they're differences you might want to know about, because the differences could mean rehab on one hand, and a thriving pot industry on the other.
When it comes to decriminalization, the term means what it sounds like. To decriminalize pot means that it would no longer be a crime for which you would face jail time for simply possessing pot, but pot as a substance is still completely illegal. If it's on you, you can still be punished for it, just not in criminal court. And if you're selling it -- even in a less shady "pot shop" -- you can still face criminal charges, because selling pot remains a criminal offense under decriminalization.
And legalization is a term that also means what it sounds like. To legalize pot is to allow the sale and use of cannabis to adults, with regulations on the sale of marijuana, much like the ones that exist for the sale of alcohol. Under legalization, pot is legal, you can use it if you're an adult, and if you're a licensed, taxed and regulated business, you can sell it. Legalization is worlds away from decriminalization.
Removing criminality by way of decriminalization, which is what Perry is talking about, when it comes to pot is great and all, at least in theory. No jail time for a dime bag of weed seems like a huge step. But it's not legalization, and it seems a bit dishonest to use the terms interchangeably.
So given that decriminalization, which is what Perry is proposing for Texas, has a vastly different protocol than legalization, it's important to know how it will affect our state. Let's take a look at what decriminalization would really look like for Texas, shall we?
Decriminalization in Texas means that pot possession "doesn't necessarily mean jail time," but you'll still face rehab or fines if you're caught with it. Weed isn't legal under decrim laws. You can't have it on you. But if you aren't a violent criminal, a dealer or in possession of a large amount of pot, under decriminalization, there's a good chance you won't go to jail for simple possession. It doesn't mean you won't face incarceration by way of treatment in a rehab, though. And according to Perry's camp, it can also mean more of a financial punishment, by way of fines associated with possession. So you probably won't go to jail -- although you still could -- but even if you don't, you probably won't like where you're headed.
Decriminalization still involves the court system if you're caught with weed. Sure, you won't be labeled as a hardened criminal for having weed on you. But under the guidelines proposed by Perry, you'll still have to go to court. Only this time it will be "drug court," which will offer alternative penalties, which are "softer" and will be more likely to order treatment. So basically the drug court could send you to rehab for smoking pot, and that still seems like an utter waste of time and resources.
This story continues on the next page.
Federal guidelines may still come into play with decriminalization, even if the state says you're not a criminal. Decriminalization doesn't legalize pot, but it still begs the question as to the role federal guidelines would play in conjunction with changes to state law. Would someone be allowed to receive federal aid for education in Texas with a pot charge once it is no longer a criminal offense? Or do the federal guidelines still prohibit folks with drug charges from receiving financial aid?
If pot possession is no longer a criminal offense in Texas, it would seem logical that a person should no longer be punitively kept from receiving money for higher education, considering that a stint in rehab hardly begs for such a harsh federal punishment.
But things are sticky when it comes to decriminalization and legalization, and the murky guidelines that come with decriminalization don't really help to clear up the confusion. If pot possession is not a crime in Texas, but it's still illegal, it seems like it would be straddling both sides of the fence federally.
Street dealers, not regulated businesses, will still be the suppliers of pot. Without weed being "legal," decriminalization still forces pot sales to go underground, which leaves the same old issues of pot sales to minors, shady street-level sources and financial benefit for drug cartels, who just so happen to be the major suppliers. Oh, and weed dealers will still face jail time and a criminal record, even if they're just dealing pot.
Not to mention the fact that it would be a whole lot safer to license and regulate growers to ensure the safety of a product that people are going to consume, despite its legal or illegal standing. Folks are going to smoke pot. The least we could do is make sure it isn't the bathtub gin version of weed and that it's safe to consume. Safety first, folks.
Manpower is still needed to enforce the punitive nature of decriminalization, but we don't even see the added benefit of a pot tax revenue. Want to know what costs money? Courts. Drug courts won't run themselves, and rehabs won't pay themselves. No one works for free, you know. So while -- in theory -- drug courts may sound logical, it is questionable as to how they would be funded. Social welfare programs are still costly alternatives, despite not being incarceration.
That pretty little pot shop industry that has popped up in Colorado wouldn't be an option for Texas under decriminalization. Those businesses would still be illegal, and we would still be wasting manpower to shut them down. Regulation also has its costs, but it also has its payoffs by way of taxes and small-business growth. It's apples to weed oranges, really.
Marijuana research is still stifled. So that weed may not earn you a few days in the pokey, but we still can't conduct scientific research on the medical benefits of marijuana if it's freakin' illegal. No scientist is going to risk his license to conduct research on a substance that is illegal to possess, even if there are lesser criminal consequences to be had, so we're still holding back some really important medical research. Ask any cancer patient about his or her thoughts on stifling cannabis research. You may learn quite a bit. Or you may regret asking them, if you're really against the idea of legalization.
Bottom line is, pot is theorized to help treat a plethora of medical conditions, but we really don't have a clue about its limitations of full benefits until we can legally study it in the United States rather than overseas. And under decriminalization guidelines, we still wouldn't be able to study it.
The reality is that the only way to remove the criminal aspect of pot is to legalize it, not decriminalize it. Decriminalization may be a good first step, but it is by no means interchangeable with a legal, regulated pot industry in Texas, nor should it be thought of as such.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events