North Texas Daily

Austin decriminalizing marijuana possession sets standard

Austin decriminalizing marijuana possession sets standard

Austin decriminalizing marijuana possession sets standard
July 16
22:05 2020

The 2010s were marked with myriad movements for change and retroactive justice in the face of changing times, notably as the Black Lives Matter movement called attention to how racial injustice permeated nearly all facets of society. Though BLM has successfully pushed for progress in many areas continuing into 2020, one of the most contradictory mixed bags of successes and failures has been in addressing drug crimes, particularly arrests for marijuana. While 11 states have fully legalized sale of recreational cannabis, less progressive states like Texas which continue to sidestep decriminalization see people of color disproportionately arrested despite equal use across racial lines.

New conversations on decriminalization in Texas have begun, however, in light of the Austin Police Department announcing on July 2 that they would cease arrests and citations for marijuana possessions altogether, instead simply confiscating it with no charges. This development is crucial not only because it comes not even a month after the APD was lambasted for its intimidating use of force against BLM protestors (many of which were not white), but also because it comes so long after a January resolution by the Austin City Council that called for the same curtailing of enforcement. Since then, the APD had not so much as stopped arrests and citations for possessions as proposed, but simply deprioritized the issue and had officers only arrest or cite if they “[came] across it.”

Though this development does not qualify as being outright decriminalization, the distinction between actively giving legal deference in possession cases versus the passive approach of deprioritizing searches makes a world of difference for those living under the law. While the APD may claim to have not been actively searching for marijuana between January and July, it still worked against a resolution that was aimed not at the dangers of drug trade, but at the disproportionate punishment of minorities under the current system of enforcement. By seeing continued enforcement as simply a matter of legality, there is a refusal therein to recognize how the very illegality of cannabis in general has often been a tool weaponized against communities of color.

Just as importantly, this mode of thinking also pays little mind to the demonstrable benefits that have come with decriminalization and legalization in the places where they were adopted. The notion that normalizing cannabis consumption is an extreme, societally unsightly move is largely informed by the decades of Reagan-era scaremongering around drugs and the people who consume them. And while there may certainly be cause for concern for more dangerous drugs, marijuana poses little more (and quite possibly less) of a threat than alcohol, and pushes for legalization primarily to recognize it as such instead of a drug that could land you in shattering legal trouble.

With all this in mind, it is important to consider what it means that Austin has moved in this direction regarding marijuana possession. Austin is not only Texas’ capital, but also a burgeoning and diverse college town. And despite the idea that a weekend in a college town is a debaucherous gallery of stoned 20-somethings playing Mario Kart and bold freshmen testing their fake IDs at bars is mostly a pulpy stereotype, it might not exist if there were not a grain of truth in it. Many go to university understanding that though these options could be available to them, going about them irresponsibly could land you in trouble. Though this logic on legality might seem sound, there is a serious problem when the smokers might face life-altering legal challenges for an act that is fully legal a few states over, and there is a societal problem when white people bear less punishment for the same crime.

When looking at the expansion of legalization and decriminalization across the U.S., it is tempting to feel hopeful that more stringent states might begin to follow suit as the benefits of decriminalization and legalization become more apparent. As long as change is resisted at the federal level, however, it will still be up to state governments to decide whether or not to adopt such policies. Though Texas has made pushes for the sale of CBD and hemp, it has still maintained a long-standing position on the list of states that resist the wholesale acceptance of marijuana. Considering that Texas is still engaging in issues around cannabis, the APD’s announcement will hopefully push the discussion toward decriminalization and possibly legalization as the mandate starts to see results.

But though these conversations revolve largely around legality, it is important to remember the real social pain that has informed this action. Decriminalization and legalization must not simply be about absolving cannabis of its label as a highly dangerous narcotic, but also redressing the structural discrimination that these laws enshrined. By moving in the direction of legalization, Texas would not only be able to show its ability to reckon with decades of misinformation on the substance, but also its perpetuation of the harmful racist structures this misinformation helped erect. In a time when drastic change is no longer on the horizon, how we deal with the future of marijuana will be a true test of what prejudices must be eliminated in the march of progress.

Featured Illustration: Olivia Varnell

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Vincenzo Favarato

Vincenzo Favarato

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