Q&A on the GOP and pot reform

Dallas Morning News, Sunday Points:

John Baucum, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition
John Baucum, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition

A bipartisan coalition has formed to lobby the Legislature to revise marijuana laws and join the 28 states that have decriminalized or legalized use of small amounts. Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition is one of the groups. We posed questions about the initiative to RAMP’s political director, John Baucum, 31, who’s also president of the Houston Young Republicans and an account manager for a software company:

I’d guess some people are surprised to hear the name of your group — Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition — since the GOP typically represents the status quo on social issues. True?

Traditionally, Republicans have championed the principles of individual liberty, limited government and fiscal responsibility. From a policy perspective, marijuana prohibition flies in the face of each of these values. However, there are certainly some people surprised to see Republicans helping to lead the fight for marijuana reform. Prohibition is a big-government idea, so those supporting a limited government should outwardly reject that notion.

What do polls say in general about attitudes held by Republicans, vs. Democrats, on marijuana-related issues?

Just about every poll shows overwhelming public support for reforming marijuana laws. These numbers differ somewhat based on decriminalization or medical marijuana, but overall support remains very high. Republicans, in Texas, seem to be evenly split on medical marijuana, and a slight majority tends to support lowering the criminal penalty for possession of small amounts.

But is there a gap overall between Republicans and Democrats? And is it as strong among younger people?

There is a gap between Republicans and Democrats, but neither party is really choosing to lead on this. In Congress, some of the most outspoken on marijuana reform are Republicans, such as congressmen Dana Rohrabacher of California, Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, plus Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

I don’t believe the gap is as wide among younger voters in the two parties. In our experience, young Republicans agree with RAMP, but they don’t list marijuana policy as their top priority. Most reasonable people understand that prohibition is an abject failure and marijuana is not as dangerous as they’ve been led to believe from years of “reefer madness” propaganda.

Tell me more about the “fiscal responsibility” issue you mentioned for Republicans.

Every two years, the Texas Legislature must pass a balanced budget. When bills are considered in committee, their budgetary impact is a prime indicator of whether the bill will pass through committee or not. In 2012, there were over 70,000 arrests or citations for marijuana-related offenses in Texas, and over 95 percent were for possession only. This creates a huge and expensive burden for law enforcement and our criminal justice system.

What was your reaction when Gov. Rick Perry called drug-enforcement policies “flawed” last week?

Governor Perry has been in the lead on this issue for some time. From his states-rights comments in his book Fed Up! to telling Jimmy Kimmel, “You don’t want to ruin a kid’s life for having a joint,” Perry and Texas Republicans have come together in a bipartisan way to push for smart criminal-justice reforms. We believe marijuana reform is an obvious step toward a more effective policing and public safety strategy.

How far do you think the Legislature will go this year in changing marijuana laws?

There is a great chance that the Texas Legislature will pass some type of legislation reforming our draconian marijuana policy. Never before has there been such a large coalition working together on this issue to make reform a reality. Many diverse groups have come together to create a coalition called Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. We’ve spent the past several months visiting with lawmakers and educating them on the facts about marijuana.

On the criminal justice side, we are supporting HB 507, which would lower the penalty for possession of 1 ounce or less from its current status of a Class B misdemeanor ($2,000 fine and up to six months in jail) to a civil penalty not to exceed $100.

Later this session, a comprehensive medical marijuana bill will be introduced. It will allow patients with specific qualifying conditions to access medical marijuana upon the recommendation of their physician.

As a state that prides itself on limited bureaucracy, the government of Texas should not put itself between the doctor-patient relationships and deny lifesaving medicine to suffering individuals.

You mentioned HB 507, the bill to make possession a civil penalty. The author, Rep. Joe Moody, is an ex-prosecutor, but law-enforcement people traditionally are hostile to pot reform. How do you size up the opposition?

Three of the largest cities in Texas — Houston, Dallas and Austin — are now veering from the Class B misdemeanor in some type of program. These efforts were led by prosecutors and law enforcement. When you have large cities looking at their crowded jail systems and asking the question, “Who is the easiest offender to de-prioritize?” it’s pretty obvious to pinpoint the low-risk pot offender.

Police we’ve talked to said they often, “make it a Class C in the field.” In other words, they write a ticket for marijuana paraphernalia, a Class C, and let the encounter serve as a lesson. This shows you law enforcement is already thinking about different ways to handle the marijuana offender.

This Q&A was conducted by editorial writer Rodger Jones. Reach him at rmjones@dallasnews.com. Reach Baucum at johnb@rampgop.org.