Texas sheriff gets hammered during marijuana debate
Sheriff Will Travis of Denton County debated two representatives of marijuana policy organizations earlier this week, resulting in crushing defeat.
The debate took place live on KTSA in San Antonio a day after the Drug Impact Conference, featuring both Jax Finkel, the deputy director of Texas NORML, and Zoe Russell, the assistant director of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP).
Travis, who won election in 2012, is currently the subject of a possible campaign finance scandal. He is also a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent who it has been reported fabricated evidence in a search warrant affidavit, costing the federal prosecutor the case, which caused more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and others drugs seized to no longer be used as evidence against the drug dealer. He was also investigated for bribery.
He has dedicated much of his time in office traveling to Austin to fight against any changes in marijuana policy, even going so far as to confuse marijuana with hemp during an Agriculture and Livestock Committee hearing this year.
As the debate began, Travis touted the fact that as head of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, the group passed an official policy position opposing marijuana legalization in any form. However a confidential source reports that only a small number of sheriffs in attendance actually voted in favor of the position.
“It is reckless and irresponsible” Travis began in opposition to marijuana legalization, stating that it “will hurt the youth and we’re here to protect them.”
Travis says that about 1 in 200 inmates at his jail are in for marijuana, and that his department would rather not bust people for marijuana. He added that typically offenders with small amounts do not see any jail time and are not the bulk of his arrests.
Russell responded that her Houston based Harris county spends entirely too many jail resources on marijuana arrests, stating that 11 percent of all arrests in the county are for small possession.
Finkel came out swinging, immediately citing an array of statistics which contradicted the sheriff’s previous statement.
“In 2012, 72,000 Texans were arrested for marijuana, and of those, about 98 percent were arrested for less than an ounce. Over 41 percent of those arrested for less than an ounce were under the age of 21” she stated, adding “I hope Sheriff Travis will want to protect those youth as well.”
Finkel named off several aspects those youth would have to endure for a marijuana arrest, including jail time, attorney fees, housing discrimination, lost access to student aid, and a criminal record which would follow them for life, which often impacts employment opportunities.
She added that each marijuana arrest costs about $10,000 or more, saying that too many resources are wasted.
Citing even more statistics, such as that 90 percent of burglaries, 25 percent of murders, and over 50 percent of rape cases going unsolved, she questioned why police weren’t focused more on violent crime.
“Recent polls show that only 24 percent of Texans want to maintain the current marijuana laws.” Finkel later stated that during the Drug Impact Conference, which hosts many members of the law enforcement community, attendees were polled and about half were in favor of medical marijuana. She also added that polling showed 67 percent of Denton County residents support medical marijuana, saying “I like to use the numbers, not rhetoric.”
Travis responded that “we’re not out there looking for the small time people, we could do this all day long but we don’t choose to.”
Pressing further on the sheriff’s concern for the youth, Finkel stated “you’re concerned about children and we had a CBD bill pushed by parents with sick children, yet you testified against it. What about those children?”
A bill which legalized the growing of marijuana high in CBD and low in THC passed this year and will establish a medical marijuana program for people with severe seizure disorders who have exhausted all other avenues of treatment. THC is an active component of marijuana which produces a “high.” Under the bill, marijuana would only be allowed to have 0.5 percent THC content.
Travis then stated that THC has negative effects on the developing brain as his reason for opposition.
Later in the debate an audience member pressed Travis on that point, asking if the effects of THC on the developing brain were worse than the side-effects of other medication which can destroy a person’s liver and other organs. That same audience member then stated that she was currently having to undergo treatment for damage to her liver due to her prescribed medications.
Finkel also added that in states which have legalized medical marijuana, they’ve seen a 25 percent decrease in opiate overdoses.
Chipping in on the medical aspects, Russell stated that it’s “hard for Texans because the federal government controls scheduling,” referencing the fact that marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no acceptable medical use. She added that President Nixon made cannabis Schedule 1 against the advice of his own experts, which has hindered research into the plant since the 70s.
“Texans should feel fine with telling the federal government that they got it wrong, and that we’re comfortable with taking care of this in our state with a plant that has not contributed to one overdose death,” Russell exclaimed. She said that parents and patients aren’t waiting, and people such as veterans, mothers of epileptic children, cancer patients, and those suffering muscular dystrophy are the ones at the capitol in need of medical marijuana, not people who have stubbed their toe. Though she adds they should have the right to access medical marijuana as well.
One audience member directed a question at Travis, stating “I’m enjoying some alcohol, which kills hundreds of thousands each year, and just earlier I smoked a cigarette, which kills millions each year. Why don’t we go after alcohol and tobacco just as hard as we do marijuana?”
Travis responded that it was a fair question, however that marijuana can stay in a person’s system for up to 28 days, while alcohol can stay only for a few days. “You’ll be going to work and operating heavy equipment while high.”
Finkel responded to that statement, saying “people go to work under the influence of hydrocodone, oxycontin, anti-depressants, and many other mind altering drugs.” She added that she knew many medical marijuana patients who use the plant to get away from many prescription drugs so they can be better functioning members of society.
Another audience member pressed Travis on his previous statement about THC staying in the system for 28 days, remarking that if there’s marijuana in Denton that keeps you high for 28 days, he would be moving to Denton. While traces of marijuana can be found in a person’s system long after they’ve smoked it, the effects of marijuana go away within a few hours of consumption.
Travis added that “it’s all about the THC, we’re seeing 39 percent THC content in Colorado, so if you take a drink that is 10 percent in volume, you’re looking at three drinks to equal one joint. Then that person is out driving, and that just doesn’t work for us.”
Russell added that driving under the influence would still be very much illegal, just as with alcohol.
Moving on to the topic of the black market, Finkel made the point that when kids try to buy alcohol, they get carded, however drug dealers don’t ID.
“So you think legalizing it is going to keep it off the black market,” Travis asked, before adding “it is going to skyrocket, all those people who can’t buy it will buy it off the black market.”
It was then that Russell made the point that this is already occurring in the black market.
“44 percent of high schoolers can buy marijuana on campus” she stated. “To think that we can’t legalize medical marijuana for our most vulnerable patients because it might divert to the black market, that’s just ignoring the reality that we have today.”
Russell says that a lot of what people argue against already exists with the black market, and to make matters worse she says, is that “we are spending a lot of money and giving all the profits to criminals.”
“Alcohol prohibition did not work and cannabis prohibition does not work, they are the same failed policy” Russell stated.
Wrapping up the debate, Travis stated that he wanted everything to be FDA approved.
Finkel concluded by referencing the fact that Marinol, a synthetic THC drug, is already FDA approved and has been since the 80s.
“I respect Sheriff Travis’ right to his own personal opinion, but as an elected official he should not be promoting policy, and should be enforcing the policy of the constituents in his area.”