AUSTIN -- Republican Gov. Rick Perry turned heads at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with what seemed to be a surprising remark concerning marijuana laws in Texas.
"What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us towards a decriminalization and keep young people from going into prison that can destroy their lives," Perry said during a panel debate over drug policy Jan. 23.
Yet a review of the hour-long discussion
featuring Perry alongside former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos and Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth suggests those hoping to see Texas follow other states in easing restrictions on marijuana shouldn't get too excited.
Contrary to the resulting headlines, Perry's statement was not a profession of pro-pot politics. Seeking to draw a distinction between the terms "decriminalization" and "legalization," Perry used the former to describe Texas' decade-old policy of promoting drug courts over jail time for non-violent offenders.
"I hope other states will look at what we have done in the State of Texas from the standpoint of thoughtfully putting into place these drug courts," said Perry. "Where we give shock probation, where we give treatment, where we allow young people whose lives would be destroyed forever if they went into the prison system an opportunity to expunge their records and after a period of time, to walk back into society -- or actually, to stay in society -- and be contributing members."
In 2007, Perry signed into a law a bill passed by the Texas Legislature allowing law enforcement to let those caught with less than four ounces of marijuana get off with a ticket and a court date instead of a trip downtown. The law paved the way for law enforcement organizations such as the Austin Police Department to make possession of marijuana a "cite and release" offense.
"Our policy gives the officers the discretion, the ability to be able to issue citations when they find someone in possession of marijuana and it's either less than two ounces of marijuana, which is a class B misdemeanor, or between two and four ounces of marijuana, which is a class A misdemeanor," said APD Lt. Ely Reyes.
The policy applies only to those who reside within Travis County.
"It allows the officers to have more time out on the street answering 9-1-1 calls and patrolling the areas," said Reyes. "Possession of marijuana still is against the law, and we're going to enforce the law, but right now we have the ability to issue a citation with your promise to go to court at a later time."
If found guilty in court, the penalties for possession of marijuana still include jail time. Concerned with the number of those locked up for drug offenses, state Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston) tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill during the 2013 legislative session aimed to remove the threat of incarceration for possession of small quantities of marijuana.
"We had about 70,000 arrests for marijuana in Texas, based on the last stats that we got," Dutton told KVUE in March 2013. "Most of those were for very minor quantities of marijuana. After talking to some of the judges in Harris County [and] talking to some other people throughout the state, one of the things that occurred to me is that we're not being very smart by doing this."
According to the governor's office, since Texas expanded drug courts in 2001, there are 74 such courts operating in 42 of the state's 254 counties. Those who opt for the 12- to 18-month program are generally between 10 and 30 percent less likely to repeat offend than those who simply serve jail time.
Since Travis County established its own drug court in 1993, roughly 3,500 felony offenders have cycled through the program, with a graduation rate of 57 percent. Offenders are required to receive drug treatment and check in routinely with supervisory officers, as well as attend a weekly court hearing to report their progress. The demographic breakdown shows about 47 percent of participants are Caucasian, 31 percent African American and 21 percent Hispanic.
Stating his belief to forum participants that marijuana is dangerous, Perry cited former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy's (D-RI) warning to President Barack Obama earlier in the month that modern marijuana strains are increasingly potent. The fiscally conservative governor suggested that research into ways to understand and treat drug addiction is one area in which government has not invested enough, and cautioned policy makers to wait for more data before changing current laws.
"I think it's very important for science to continue to play a most important role in this before we jump to some conclusion, before we run out and get in the front of a parade that's going somewhere because we think that's where the public opinion is," said Perry.
While Perry restated his past support for the right of individual states to legalize marijuana under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he emphasized his personal opposition to such a policy in Texas. Responding to a comparison to cigarettes, Perry argued leaders should not be seen as endorsing a dangerous activity.
"When I was a kid watching those actors and actresses on TV, the message was, 'It's OK,'" said Perry. "How much did we spend to reverse that? I'm just not sure as a society we want to start down that path and then 30 years from now going, 'You know what? We made a mistake in 2015, and we need to go back and reeducate the public on marijuana.'"
Near the end of the conversation, a question was posed over the effectiveness of the 40-year "War on Drugs," which Perry defended as having at least stemmed the tide of illegal drug use. It was at that point when Perry's response resulted in the comment quoted in dozens of articles nationwide.
"I can't change what's happened in the past," said Perry. "What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us towards a decriminalization and keep young people from going into prison that can destroy their lives. That's what we've done over the last decade."
Moments later, Perry's use of the term seemed to suggest a difference not only between decriminalization and legalization, but between Perry's definition of decriminalization in reference to Texas' drug courts and the definition of the word as commonly inferred by advocates of legal marijuana.
"There are some alternatives without going that big full step and saying we're going to decriminalize and send the message that it's OK," said Perry.