AUSTIN – The Republican governor of Texas supporting less jail time for pot users?
Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch conservative, riled the Lone Star state Thursday when he told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he supports the decriminalization – though not the legalization – of marijuana use.
"As the governor of the second-largest state in the country, what I can do is start us on policies that can start us on the road towards decriminalization" by introducing alternative "drug courts" that offer treatment and softer penalties for minor offenses, Perry said during an international panel on drug legalization at the summit. Perry was speaking alongside former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Perry emphasized that he is not for the legalization of marijuana but defended states' rights to make those choices. He said it's perfectly constitutional for states like Colorado to experiment with decriminalization and that Washington should stay out of those decisions.
"I am a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment," Perry said, according to U.S. News & World Report. States should be able to set their own policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, he said, "then people will decide where they want to live."
Annan praised Perry for "beginning to roll that [criminalization of drugs] back in Texas."
Back in Texas, those who worked with Perry on criminal issues were stunned at the public acknowledgement.
"Shocked," said Ana Yañez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group that favors drug treatment over incarceration for marijuana possession. "The decriminalization of marijuana is not something Perry has historically supported."
However, Perry has softened his stance on penalties for drug crimes over the years, Yañez-Correa said. He's worked with the group to create drug courts that specialize in drug offenders and cut back the amount of probation time required of offenders, she said. There are currently about 15,000 drug offenders in Texas correctional facilities.
"Perry has gone through a shift; he's evolved," Yañez-Correa said. "He represents the transition the state has gone through from being really, really tough on crime to being more sensible about it."
Still, his comments from Davos were the strongest she's ever heard from him. "It takes courage," she said. "There's a need for that."