SXSW Deaths Show Why Texas Needs Science-Based Drug Laws

The drunk driver who killed two people and injured 23 others last night in downtown Austin deserves what’s coming. It won’t be pretty. Police haven’t released his name, but reporters say the culprit was Rashad Charjuan Owens, 21. For his crimes, he could very well be sentenced to death.

Apart from the Texas-style justice that will inevitably be dispensed, this shocking and horrible event should also trigger a serious discussion about our drug laws, particularly on policies that have been scientifically shown to reduce the rate of drunk driving.

Owens allegedly tried to flee a DUI traffic stop in a stolen vehicle and ended up plowing down Red River Blvd. during the ultra-crowded SXSW festival, smashing into Mowhawk, one of my favorite bars, before leading police on a foot chase that ended with the zap of a Taser. Today, it seems everyone in Austin is buzzing about the incident. I too have a personal angle on it, even though I’m still in Wisconsin (but just for one more week). A close friend of mine narrowly escaped being hit, opting not to wait in line for the show just moments before 2,000 pounds of hulking machine came barreling through the crowd.

It was an extreme display of the dangerous behavior alcohol is known to induce, thanks to its properties of impairing one’s judgement, fumbling one’s motor skills and generally reducing us to a belligerent, emotional neanderthals. That’s precisely why the medical journal Lancet considers alcohol to be the most dangerous drug available, not just for its harms to the user but for its harms to others around the user.

Case in point: Last night in downtown Austin. But there is something we can do about it, starting now. That something is legalizing marijuana.

Now, some may be saying: “But won’t adding another intoxicating substance to the mix just increase the rate of intoxicated driving?” And that’s a reasonable question for folks who don’t have much or any experience with marijuana.

My own anecdotal evidence (I.E. high school and college) suggests that driving high is not a good idea. It’s also not fun, which is what stoned brains tend to focus on — leading reefer enthusiasts to stay in one place and focus on a particular activity (aka videogames and/or cartoons). Additionally, people who’ve casually used the drug for long periods don’t tend to become nearly as intoxicated as someone who only consumes marijuana occasionally.

Finally, most herb-loving hipsters know quite well that mixing marijuana with alcohol is very unpleasant, as being drunk and stoned at the same time causes the world to start spinning violently. I’ve heard numerous people call this effect “the Spins,” and I’ve experienced it once myself. Standing up is mostly out of the question, and driving is unfathomable in such a state. All you want to do is lie down and/or vomit. The worst-case scenario here is not a fatal car accident: It’s sleeping on the bathroom floor while your so-called friends draw genitals on your face in permanent ink (happened to a friend once). So generally, casual drug users — this includes drinkers — tend to pick one substance and stick to it while chasing a buzz.

However, our public policy discussion cannot be fueled by anecdotal evidence. So let’s look to what science can tell us about the public safety impacts of legalizing marijuana, particularly as it relates to safety on the roads.

First of all, researchers found in 2011 that states with legalized medical marijuana saw instances of drunk driving go down by an average of 12 percent. Cases involving someone who consumed a very large amount of alcohol also dropped by 14 percent. This would seem to support my anecdotal evidence that folks determined to catch a buzz will pick one vice and stick to it.

Others may ask, “But won’t legalization increase the number of stoned drivers, as it has in Washington and Colorado?” That too is a very reasonable concern, and one which Colorado and Washington are in the process of addressing. Legalization there has meant enhanced training for police officers, which will translate to a much higher percentage of officers on the force with certificated from Drug Recognition Expert courses. This too — whether stoners believe it or not — is a good thing for public safety.

Of course, the data from Colorado and Washington does show that rates of drugged driving have increased since legalization went into effect, but that does not necessarily translate to more dangerous conditions on the roads. The U.S. Department of Transportation looked into the question of how much marijuana impairs drivers in 1993, and the study they ultimately published (PDF) concluded that stoned drivers are much less dangerous than drunk drivers. Here’s an excerpt from their conclusion:

“This program of research has shown that marijuana, when taken alone, produces a moderate degree of driving impairment which is related to the consumed THC dose. The impairment manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a steady lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol. Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate where they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort. As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”

To me, this case is clear: Reforming marijuana laws means safer roads, fewer drunk drivers and better-trained police with more time to focus on violent and property crimes, instead of spending another year making over 78,000 arrests for small possession charges, as Texas cops did in 2012. Aside from the other upsides of reform — like shutting down a large and violent black market, making our criminal justice system more fair, or generating millions of dollars for schools and treatment facilities — fewer drunk drivers is a very, very good thing.

The Political Conundrum of Legalization in a Red State

Of course, while all this talk sounds nice, how likely is that a red state like Texas would embrace drug reform? The popular, cynical view is that there’s no way it will happen here, and is more likely to be forced on Texas by the feds. I certainly believe this will be the case, but there’s an alternate path we could follow.

Consider Rick Perry, who said recently that he would consider decriminalization. That would entail reducing a small possession charge from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C, on par with a traffic ticket, and maybe requiring individuals to attend a mandatory drug and alcohol class. This is one of the bold new policy positions Republicans are just beginning to stake out, and smartly too — Nate Silver has long recommended it, and as everyone discovered in 2012, it’s hard to question his math. Others in the party like Senator Rand Paul have gotten enthusiastic reactions for advocating drug reform, and thanks to the states with medical laws there’s real money behind the legalization movement as well.

Perry appeared this week on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which has been airing shows from Austin’s own Long Center in a brief run that’s had me watching every night. I don’t normally watch Kimmel (I’m on Team Coco), so I don’t know his routines or mannerisms very well. Still, it struck me that he seems to anchor an unusual number of his jokes on marijuana or alcohol use.

Call it knowing your audience, I guess. Austin is one of the drunkest cities in the country. We’re also famous for mostly allowing people people to smoke marijuana openly, sometimes in massive groups during city-sanctioned festivals that go on for days. So yeah, okay Jimmy, that’s fair game.

During one segment this week, which seems less funny given last night’s events, Kimmel bluntly reminded his audience that Austin has “a drinking problem.” Then he jumped right into a segment where his camera operators walked down 6th Street asking festival-goers, “Are you drunk?” Watch:

Kimmel’s week of shows from Austin also included interviews with Snoop Dogg, Seth Rogen and Willie Nelson, each of them known for their drug reform advocacy. Given the lineup, Rick Perry’s addition was somewhat surprising, but the boos he received from the SXSW crowd were not. Still, he somehow managed to squeeze some laughter and applause out of the audience when the subject of reefer came up. Watch (Kimmel and Perry start discussing weed at 2:05):

So, Perry says he’s easing up on small time drug offenses and the crowd goes wild. It’s a lie, of course: Texas is by no means easing up on busting people for small possession charges. But still, he didn’t even have to say anything substantive to make an audience full of his opponents cheer. That’s the new politick in Texas today, but few mainstream politicians have realized it yet. I suspect it raised Perry’s eyebrow, so kudos to Kimmel for that much at least. This same principle is why Texas Democrats are desperately fending off the very real threat posed by Kesha Rogers, the pro-impeachment, anti-Wall Street candidate in their U.S. Senate primary.

Now that Perry’s going to be Officially out of the picture — and please rest assured Texans, this man will never be the President — it will be up to either Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis to chart a new course for Texas drug policy.

What’s clear is that reform is on the minds of younger, more connected voters. Just look at the reaction Perry got from a crowd that otherwise mostly hates him. But not all of those young people are necessarily liberals, like many Republicans think of Austin. A good deal of them are unaffiliated, and I can tell you that many younger Texans are also sympathetic to the Ron Paul wing of the party — or, at least the remaining bits that haven’t been taken by the Koch brothers. The point is, there’s still a potential contest to be had for these voters if the candidates are willing to appeal to shake things up and appeal to them directly.

Abbott’s campaign has told advocacy groups and the media that he’s not interested in drug reform, preferring the status quo of tossing people in jail for as little as a joint and leaving them there for up to six months. Davis has said she’s in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use, but hedged her support on the condition that Texans are in favor as well. A recent poll shows a majority of Texans actually favor full-on legalization — something that Davis said she’s not so sure about.

Now that Abbott and Davis are fully focused on the general election, their battle will be fought in the margins. Davis has the most room to try and fire up her base, because her data analytics are bound to show that there are not many wavering Republicans. She is the candidate most likely to make direct appeals to younger voters, although her campaign has suffered from poor media management and ham-handed outreach. But a strong, pro-reform campaign pledge could get millennials very excited about Davis, and they made all the difference to Obama in 2012.

Abbott is a different story, but he too could clear the way for drug reform of a different sort. While he will surely be hard pressed to adhere to his ultra-conservative base since he has a strong lead right now, Abbott might just make a play for the center if Davis starts gaining on him. It would be easy to flip-flop on the status quo and just say he’s agreed with Perry all along, sideswiping drug reform in an effort to siphon voters from the center.

So it would seem that both candidates have something to gain by dabbling in the tide pool of drug reform. But just how much would appear to depend on how close the race gets.

Politics aside, last night’s tragedy really cries out for policy discussions, because we can use the instrument of government to occasionally stop things like this from happening. If we can also fund our schools, fight back against gangsters and help victims of drug addiction along the way, well then dammit, all the better.


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