Marijuana Legalization Could Come to Texas, and Law Students are Helping Figure How
Rehman Bhalesha was raised around marijuana. That's not to say that he dealt, or that he pushed, or that he used. He didn't have to. Weed, growing up, turned up wherever he went.
"Living in South Texas, you really see the substance flood high school and college campuses and neighborhoods, without any regulation, in a completely illicit market," Bhalesha, set to be a third-year student at the South Texas College of Law, told Hair Balls. "I've spent my entire life seeing a strong need [for regulation]."
Experiences in Houston and Austin crafted his views. Academic research buttressed his conclusions. And then, in 2012, after letters to legislators effected little change, a blog post from Rice University's Baker Institute Drug Policy Program lit an idea. Bhalesha approached his dean. What was the potential for a crossover? What was the potential for a joint project between STCL and one of the pre-eminent drug-focused think tanks in the nation?
"We really have an amazing dean -- he's really forward-thinking," Bhalesha related. "The stars just aligned."
Months after that initial notion, and after Bhalesha had contacted those affiliated with the Baker Institute's DPP arm, he's produced a 22-page paper (below) examining the realities and challenges facing marijuana legislation within Texas. Surveying tax policy and enforcement methods, detailing relationships between marijuana and tobacco, observing opportunities to reduce adolescent marijuana usage and increase state revenue, Bhalesha has taken a fresh eye to the issue of marijuana enforcement in Texas.
Furthermore, the paper comes at an opportune time, published on the heels of the ACLU's recent report blasting Texas for the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrest rates.
"I'd say Texas definitely needs [evaluation], arguably more so than California or Colorado, because of the proximity to the border, because of the ACLU report, because it's among the top states spending the most money arresting the most people, all while being less effective," Bhalesha says. "That's how desperate Texas is." The paper is part of a course-wide project, speared by Law Professor Dru Stevenson, in which students examined potential direction for future marijuana infrastructure. Stevenson's students, including Bhalesha, examined existing marijuana regulation and crafted mock legislation for the potential future paths of decriminalization and legalization.
"The problem is, after it's legalized, states need some statutes -- what do we do now?" Stevenson told Hair Balls. "Students would draft a few pages of model statutes, then write eight to 12 pages of commentary, and put these together and create sort of a model legislation that states could use off the shelf."
The mock legislation covered a raft of ideas and localities, and was provided to the Baker Institute for politicians to examine. Due to the collaboration, as Bhalesha said, "future policymakers will have almost a legislative buffet" from which to choose.
As it is, Nate Jones, a postdoctoral fellow in Drug Policy at the Baker Institute, understands that this course, which is set to continue next spring, will not change policy instantaneously. Jones, who's seen the gruesome effects of marijuana criminalization during his research in Mexico, knows that any potential shift will be years in the making.
"No matter what, even if we start to change drug policy, these problems are going to take decades," Jones said. "It took decades to start, and it will take decades to address them."
Still, the project is a start. While macro-polling seems to reveal that marijuana decriminalization, if not outright legalization, is set to expand across America in the near future, Texas continues to lag behind the rest of the country. Its libertarian, small-government tic has extended so far. Forty years after Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana, eight months after voters in Washington and Colorado legalized recreational usage, Texas retains some of the most stringent laws in the nation.
"Other schools -- Humboldt State, Colorado State -- have looked at the issue and helped their states out when it comes to making policy recommendations," Bhalesha says, discussing STCL's course. But the fact that this comes in Texas, one of the strictest states remaining? "I think it's pretty historic. It's the first of its kind."