This commentary originally appeared in Breitbart Texas on February 27, 2014.
Last month, Governor Rick Perry’s comments about marijuana policy at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland generated considerable national interest-and multiple postshere at Breitbart Texas.
In general, however, the governor did not say anything new about marijuana. His remarks were consistent with the record he has established over thirteen years as governor, and with the efforts of conservatives who have encouraged criminal justice reform in Texas.
First, Perry said that he supports empowering different states to make drug policy as they choose. While he does not believe marijuana legalization would be the right policy for Texas, he thinks the people of Colorado and Washington are free to experiment with the idea if they want. Texans will of course be interested in observing the results.
In fact, Colorado’s anti-legalization governor, John Hickenlooper, encourages other states to wait and see how legalization unfolds before following suit.
There is nothing new about this approach by Perry. He said the exact same thing about marijuana and federalism in his 2010 book, Fed Up! In the book he also cited Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis‘s classic observation: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Secondly, the governor more or less said that while he does not favor marijuana legalization, neither does he favor an incarceration-based approach to marijuana. (“What I can do…is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives….”)
Again, this is not new. It reflects the approach he took in 2007 when he signed “cite and summons” legislation to deal with marijuana possession offenders.
Contrary to popular misconception, most defendants charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana are not sentenced to jail time; they generally receive probation and/or a fine. Many, however, find themselves behind bars while they await their day in court-and Texas taxpayers pay dearly to house them. The legislature sought to minimize this cost by passing a bill that permits police to “cite and summon” an offender to court rather than arrest him.
This is not occurring in most counties because prosecutors have not cooperated by providing a court date that must be listed on the preprinted citation forms. The governor’s comments may have indicated that he recognizes this, and thus, he is willing to support an additional step-the classification of low-level marijuana possession as a Class C misdemeanor.
Class C misdemeanors, unlike higher level misdemeanors, allow for a person to mail in payment if they do not wish to contest the citation. Jail time only occurs if the defendant ignores the citation. Other Class C misdemeanors include the misuse of laser pointers and theft of less than $50.
If this is what Perry meant, he misspoke when he used the word “decriminalization.” A Class C misdemeanor is a crime, and it requires a criminal sanction-just not necessarily incarceration.
This pragmatism has animated Texas’s approach to drug policy in general-not just marijuana.
For example, in 2001 Perry signed legislation establishing drug courts in all Texas counties with populations greater than 550,000. These courts that put hard drug offenders into mandatory treatment programs to hold them accountable instead of just locking them behind bars. Perry singled the courts out for praise in recent interviews with CNN and Fox News. The Texas Legislature expanded these courts in 2007.
Nationally, criminal justice policy wonks now consider Texas a true success story. For thirteen years, the legislature and governor have increasingly focused on community supervision alternatives for low-level, non-violent offenders-often drug offenders. During that time, Texas has shut down three prisons due to unneeded capacity, and it has avoided any new prison construction, thereby saving the state over $2 billion. Meanwhile, the crime rate has dropped to its lowest point since 1968.
Marijuana policy has dominated the news in 2014, and for that reason, it is understandable that people were curious about Rick Perry’s comments in Davos. The real story, however, is less what Perry said-and more what Perry has done.
Vikrant P. Reddy is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter at @vpreddy