Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Most Americans support decriminilization of marijuana; politicans lag behind public opinion


Cannabis legislation is popping up like seedlings in states across the nation because public opinion polls show most Americans support the decriminalization of marijuana for a variety of reasons.

A Gallup poll in late 2014 showed 51 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, down from a high of 58 percent in 2013 but still above the 50 percent mark reached in 2011 and 2012. The upward trend reflected a dramatic change from nearly a half-century ago, in 1969, when only 12 percent of adults favored the drug’s legalization.

The figure jumped to 28 percent in the late 1970s and to 34 percent by 2003.

The poll showed that support for the legalization of marijuana appeared to be the strongest in the eastern and western states. But a similar poll conducted by The University of Texas and the Texas Tribune indicated 76 percent of the Lone Star State’s residents favor some sort of marijuana legalization.

 Federal law prohibits the growing, marketing, possession and use of marijuana, but federal officials are not interfering in states where laws are passed permitting the medical use of marijuana and decriminalization.

House Bill 2165 introduced by Rep. David Simpson, a Republican from Longview in Northeast Texas, would put an end to Texas’ century-old prohibition of marijuana. After he filed the bill, Simpson wrote in an editorial published by the Texas Tribune, “I don’t believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that government needs to fix.”

The legislator said marijuana should be regulated in the same manner as popular Texas vegetables like tomatoes and jalapeno peppers.

Lifelong Republican Ann Lee, an 85-year-old who formed Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, noted the cannabis laws conflict with the Republican Party’s views on promoting personal freedom and restricting government regulation. She praised Simpson’s bill saying, “It’s true saying that prohibition doesn’t work, and we need to rectify if possible the harm that has been done.”

There are now about a dozen pieces of marijuana legislation pending in the Texas Legislature that would either legalize medical use of cannabis or reduce the penalties for possession of the drug.

The House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence recently heard from supporters and opponents of reducing penalties for marijuana possession and legalization. Opponents argued any sort of tolerance of the drug would lead to moral and physical decay of the state’s population, similar to the Bible-waving naysayers of yesterday who stand firmly committed to regulating what goes on in the privacy of other people’s living rooms and bedrooms.

Supporters of decriminalizing marijuana claimed Texas would save almost a quarter-billion dollars by ending the prosecution, and they cited an official state fiscal report. The legalization of personal marijuana use would remove thousands from the criminal and juvenile justice system and reduce workloads in criminal courts, according to the supporters.

Critics of Texas’ marijuana laws point out that the state’s prisons are full of people convicted of possessing or selling small amounts of marijuana. Supporters of marijuana reform also believe decriminalization would help reduce organized criminal activity and the violence associated with it.

Since Colorado voters legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use and retail stores began marketing the drug in January 2014, the state has benefited from a new source of tax revenue. The state’s new marijuana industry quickly thrived, and the influx of visitors to the mountain state no doubt includes countless Texans traveling there to get high while spending money in restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. Some will be prosecuted in Texas for returning home with marijuana they purchased legally in Colorado.

The medical use of marijuana is now permitted in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, District of Columbia and the territory of Guam.

Critics of the laws allowing the medical use of marijuana claim prescriptions are too easy to obtain, but marijuana is highly effective in easing the pain and nausea associated with cancer treatment, according to many patients and their doctors.

Recreational use is allowed only in Alaska and Colorado.

Not many people expect the Texas Legislature to actually legalize marijuana this session, but the large amount of legislation supported by both Democrats and Republicans suggests attitudes will continue to change in the coming years.

Politicians react to phone calls, emails and letters. If everyone in the state who supports marijuana reform let their elected representatives know their stand on the issue, the state would see progress far more quickly than will otherwise occur.

Information about ongoing efforts to promote marijuana reform is available at www.TexasMarijuanaPolicy.org.

 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Texas Tea Party-backed legislator diverts funds from HIV/STD education to abstinence program



Anyone surprised by Texas Rep. Dr. Stuart Spitzer’s advocacy of abstinence education over HIV/STD public awareness campaigns shouldn’t be. And you should expect more of the same from the East Texas legislator who represents much of the Cedar Creek Lake area.

Spitzer (top picture) won the seat from two-term Republican Rep. Lance Gooden with the support of the Kaufman County Tea Party. His first challenge against Gooden (second picture) in 2012 failed, but his second challenge, last year, succeeded in large part because he and his supporters portrayed Gooden as a liberal.

Spitzer described himself as a “true conservative,” and he touted his marriage and two children as evidence of his strong moral character. A whisper campaign by Spitzer supporters suggested that Gooden, who is 32 and unmarried, might be gay, even though there is no evidence of that.

Gooden, from Terrell in Kaufman County, appeared to be more moderate than his opponent, and he made no public statements about the issue of marriage equality, while Spitzer spoke in favor of “traditional marriage,” downsizing the state budget and whatever else the Tea Party wanted to hear.

Spitzer is a member of the First Baptist Church in Kaufman where he is a deacon and Sunday school teacher. At a luncheon in Austin where I sat next to him with another reporter, he pointed out to us that he is a teetotaler as well when he moved a glass of iced tea out of camera range to avoid the possibility of it being mistaken for a cocktail.

Spitzer is a surgeon, and he graduated from Baylor University and the UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. On the night of his election to the 83rd Legislature, Spitzer said, “God in his infinite wisdom has chosen to lead us here to this night of victory.”

Spitzer, a native of Athens in Henderson County, wasted no time in pursuing his ultraconservative agenda by sponsoring legislation in the Texas House of Representatives diverting $3 million from the biennial budget from HIV/STD prevention education to abstinence-only sexual education programs.
The political newcomer cited his own sexual history as evidence of abstinence being an effective tool in preventing sexually-transmitted disease infections: He said he was a virgin until the age of 29 when he married his wife.

House Democrats fought Spitzer’s message, citing statistics showing Texas has the third-highest HIV rate in the nation. They advocated abstinence among teenagers, but they argued against decreasing the budget for prevention methods for teenagers who reject the idea of abstinence.
Spitzer’s amendment passed. 97-47.

The Texas Observer and Texas Monthly skewered Spitzer for statements like, “Abstinence is the best way to prevent HIV,” and that his ultimate goal would be for “everyone to be abstinent until they are married.”

Spitzer is on record against marriage equality, so it is unclear what he thinks gay and lesbian citizens should do, although we can probably guess. The suggestion would no doubt involve lifelong abstinence supplemented by extensive conversion therapy.

After Spitzer’s amendment passed in the House, Texas Monthly reported teen pregnancy is high and HIV cases are increasing in the legislator’s district. The publication gave teenage pregnancy rates in District 4 by zip code, and it noted Kaufman County spends $3.29 million per year on teen pregnancy and Henderson County spends $2.99 million.

The magazine quipped that Spitzer might be practicing abstinence, but lots of teenagers in his district obviously do not.

Spitzer’s legislative office issued a press release in the wake of mass media coverage describing the firestorm as “multitudes of misleading attacks being levied by biased media sources and left-leaning blogs across the nation.” The press release noted the amendment shifted less than 1 percent of the annual $191.4 million HIV/STD Awareness Education fund budget to abstinence education, resulting in a 28 percent increase to it.

“It amazes me how visceral the attacks on my family and me have been as a result of this effort, and how misinformed people are as to the effects of our amendment,” Spitzer said in the statement.
The lawmaker’s work in Austin played well back home in District 4. Athens Daily Review Editor Chad Wilson praised Spitzer in an editorial, and the editor noted that he too had remained a virgin until his marriage.

If Spitzer and Wilson say they remained virgins until their marriages, I will take their word for it. Still, I think expectations that others will follow suit in large enough numbers to decrease incidences of sexually-transmitted diseases to be an unrealistic view of society, especially for a medical professional and a journalist.

Regardless of the criticism Spitzer might have endured from people who are on the front lines fighting HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, I imagine the praise he got from his conservative political base in his district more than made up for any sting he might feel from his foes. We no doubt will be hearing much more from Spitzer about issues important to the LGBT community during the rest of the legislative session — and possibly beyond.