State Rep. Joe Moody said Friday he will continue working for legislation that decriminalizes possessing small amounts of marijuana so that people are not punished unduly for what should be a minor violation.
Moody, D-El Paso, and others agreed that the legal consequences for possessing marijuana are overly harsh and continue long after convictions. People who acquire a criminal record for drugs may lose out on financial aid for school, jobs, housing and entering the military.
Moody, a former prosecutor, was on a panel to discuss marijuana legalization, decriminalization and alternatives to prosecution as part of the Texas Lyceum Conference titled “Have We Lost the War on Drugs.”
His bill to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana with a $240 civil fine didn’t make it past the calendars committee this session, but he said the serious attention the measure and others like it received during the legislative session encouraged him try again in the future. “We’ve come a long way in Texas in a very short time,” said Moody, who was on a panel with Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Colt DeMorris, president of the El Paso chapter of NORML, an organization that advocates the responsible use of marijuana.
DeMorris said he doesn’t believe that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to the inevitable use of stronger and highly addictive drugs.
“We’ve been told lies. We’ve been using marijuana for at least 6,000 years, and it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the government found it was more profitable to make it illegal,” DeMorris said. In 1937, a federal tax went into effect on the sale of marijuana — it was repealed in 1970.
“It’s the black market that’s a gateway drug,” DeMorris said. “(Dealers) who run out of marijuana may offer other drugs to buyers, and that’s how they entice people into trying other drugs. Marijuana can be used an ‘exit drug’ without any harmful side effects.”
An exit drug is one that is used as a substitute for other things, such as alcohol, heroin and harder drugs or prescription drugs.
DeMorris also said that marijuana has medical properties, and as hemp can be used in the manufacture of numerous useful products.
Colorado, which legalized marijuana, raised $700 million in tax revenue in the first year since the law was passed, and a portion of the revenue is being used for the schools, DeMorris said.
Valdez, considered the only Latina sheriff in the nation, said she would like to see a different sentencing system for people who are arrested with small amounts of marijuana.
“I’m not for legalization, I am for alternative sentencing,” Valdez said. “We do have to get past the horror stories to have a serious discussion on the public policy matters. We’re spending too much money on one side of the drug problem, and we need to spend more on treatment and prevention.”
DeMorris said drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue and not as a crime.
Earlier in the day, El Paso law enforcement leaders said they opposed the legalization of marijuana. They included El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, District Attorney Jaime Esparza, Bill Glaspy, DEA Special Agent in Charge, and Douglas Lindquist, FBI Special Agent in Charge.
“Marijuana is not a harmless drug, and it is not a victimless drug,” Esparza said. “I believe it is a gateway drug, and that makes it dangerous.”
Lindquist said drug-trafficking organizations produce numerous victims along the way including impoverished people they use as “mules” to transport drugs across the border.
An example he gave is someone who was caught at the border carrying a burlap sack with 60 to 80 pounds of marijuana. “Is that person a victim? I would say, yes,” Lindquist said.
Glaspy said the medical and scientific communities should be the ones that determine whether marijuana is safe to consume. He said this was not the process that was used in states where voters passed referendums legalizing marijuana. Instead, he said, legislatures and public opinion were the ones that decided the outcome.
Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon legalized marijuana, and 23 states, including Texas and New Mexico, adopted laws that allow the use of marijuana or marijuana components for medical purposes, according to NORML.
Lindquist said his counterparts in states that legalized marijuana are reporting increases in DUI’s associated with cannabis, and uncontrolled levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana, that reached as much as 50 percent, compared with 3 percent of THC levels in the past. “It’s a totally different drug now,” he said.
Allen said educating people about the harmful effects of drugs, including marijuana, may help to deter some from trying them in the first place. He and Esparza both said there is a connection between drug use and other crimes.
Also on Friday, judges and defense lawyers at the conference discussed the challenges of using sentencing guidelines and political pressures that lead to sentencing legislation that unduly punish the people at the low end of drug-trafficking organizations.
The experts agreed that there are no easy answers for the best way to handle drug offenses, especially when they involved violators without previous criminal records and who were ignorant about their role in drug delivery schemes.
Criminal defense lawyer Jim Darnell said he would like to see the judicial system do away with sentencing guidelines, even if they are not mandatory, and for judges to be able to exercise greater discretion in imposing punishments.
“We are paying a fortune to incarcerate people who don’t need to be incarcerated,” Darnell said.
The conference also featured excerpts and discussion on the documentary “Kingdom of Shadows” by filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz.
The Texas Lyceum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide organization focused on identifying the next generation of Texas leaders. The organization consists of 96 men and women from across the state that began their term under the age of 46, and who demonstrated leadership in their community and profession and a commitment to Texas.