Preaching Past The Choir: Rice Drug Reform Scholar William Martin Sees New Converts To His Cause

By | October 29, 2014
Photo by Juan Islas.
Can Texas accept medical marijuana? William Martin, a senior fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute, says yes. Photo by Juan Islas.

What makes people change their minds about drugs? Specifically, what has prompted leaders, voters, law enforcement officials, and even the medical establishment to so alter their views that marijuana is now decriminalized in more than 20 states and has been made legal for recreational use in Colorado?

On November 12, sociologist William Martin will lead a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy titled “Is Texas Ready for Medical Marijuana?” that will delve into just those, and other, questions. For Martin himself, the answer lies in a compelling new mix of research, the experience of people who have used marijuana for medical purposes, and steady work by scholars and activists that has revealed the failures of drug prohibition. 

Faith in the cause might also help. Martin, an emeritus professor at Rice and a senior fellow at the Baker Institute, is currently best known for preaching drug policy reform. But he first appeared in the public eye as a different type of preacher: at 14 he was a child evangelist in the fundamentalist Church of Christ. Two years later, at Abilene Christian University, Martin was still preaching on weekends. But he was also beginning a career as a scholar. His studies led him to question the fundamentalist world-view and to focus more on Biblical principles of justice and compassion. 

Martin went on to earn a seminary degree at Harvard Divinity School as well as a doctorate in sociology and ethics. Returning to Texas, he became one of Rice University’s most popular professors. During those years, he also maintained an unusual connection with mainstream readers, writing regularly for publications from the Atlantic to Texas Monthly and authoring seven books. 

While his own experience with illegal drugs was limited to a few timid tokes of marijuana in the early 1970s, Martin says his advocacy is based on the public health and economic fallout of decades of failed drug policy. As director of the Baker Institute’s Drug Policy Program, he has written, testified, and worked in favor of projects such as the needle exchange program proposed by Legacy Community Health Services in Montrose. 

What’s the goal of the “Is Texas Ready for Medical Marijuana?” conference, and who will be there?

Right now, it looks likely that the 2015 Texas legislature will consider at least one bill to permit legal use of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions. We thought it would be helpful not only to talk about conditions and diseases that cannabis may address, but also to look at how the reform campaign is going. In the November 12 discussion, speakers will include a physician, a legal grower and dispensary director from New Mexico, longtime Texas representative Elliott Naishtat, and advocates for families dealing with epilepsy and autism. 

Photo by Juan Islas.
Martin began his public career as a child evangelist. Now he’s preaching another gospel to a different audience. Photo by Juan Islas.

What drug policy reforms do you advocate? 

First, regulation is better than prohibition. Drug prohibition causes more problems than it solves. That’s not to say that drugs don’t cause problems. I’m not saying we should put rocks of crack in gumball machines at McDonald’s. But we have regulation already for much stronger substances than marijuana. We’ve already regulated drugs like amphetamines – there are many problems with their use, but at least they’re not contaminated with lye or having people blow themselves up making them.

Perhaps most important, we need to reform our approach to alcohol, which is the number one drug of abuse in the country. Absent criminal behavior, we ought to treat drug use as we treat alcohol: as a public health problem, rather than a crime. I think most scientists and medical people who work in the field of addiction agree on that. At one point, the National Institute for Drug Abuse and the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse Abuse seriously considered merging. They decided not to because people do not like to give up their fiefdoms.

We also should study the examples of other governments to see what works. Switzerland and the Netherlands provide addicts with pharmaceutical-grade heroin in a sterile environment with a nurse present in case of overdose. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs. If someone gets in trouble they deal with it as a social problem, with a three-person panel to decide on proper measures. I was in Portugal recently, and visited with the police there. It hasn’t been the chaos that people predicted.

The best thing we can do is to focus on adolescents and drug abuse. This is difficult. Part of the problem is genetic. Part is family and environment. But we have spent a trillion dollars on what doesn’t work. We’ve now got four decades of mapping illicit drug use. We know that about 7 percent of adolescents under 18 have a substance abuse problem. Between 18 and 25 years old, 20 percent have a problem. Then, after age 26, it’s about 7 percent. Probably 90 percent of substance abusers in that older group had the problem in adolescence before age 18. This is where we need to focus.

Finally, we need to reform the criminal justice system and the penalties for drug possession. One of the worst things that can happen to a young person is getting a criminal record. You lose a scholarship, your family can lose access to public housing, it’s difficult to find employment. In fiscal year 2011, nonviolent drug offenders who were incarcerated in Texas state jail or prisons cost us $725,000 a day – that’s $264 million a year. I think pretty much everyone agrees that drug policy reform is going to save or make money. 

What drew you to studying drug policy?

When I came to Rice in 1968, I was assigned to teach a course in American Social Problems. I had never taken a course on American social problems! But I had seen the issue through reading and in projects such as starting a settlement house in Boston in the mid-1960s. Early on, I started bringing in people like gay and prison activist Ray Hill, prostitutes, police officers.

Also in 1972, a book came out, Licit and Illicit Drugs. It was a wonderful book: it talked about how heroin could be dealt with by providing addicts with pharmaceutical grade heroin in a clean, medical environment, thus taking the criminal aspect out of it. It talked about how marijuana was not as harmful as it was portrayed to be. It was the early ’70s, a lot of my students were using marijuana, and I started paying attention to it.

I also taught criminology for 35 years. I thought that instead of saying drugs cause crimes, it is more accurate to say people who commit crimes also use drugs. Personal and social factors are more important than the drugs themselves. That’s not to say that drugs cannot cause serious problems.

Meanwhile, I’ve been involved in the Baker Institute since it began. In 2000, I was asked by Jerry Epstein and Dr. Al Robison of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas if the Baker Institute would be interested in drug policy. I knew we were needlessly packing our prisons for drug offenses. Fortunately, others agree.

Photo by Juan Islas.
Texans, Martin believes, are begining to change their attitudes toward marijuana. Photo by Juan Islas.

You recently wrote an article for Texas Monthly about veterans’ efforts to obtain medical marijuana.

Many veterans find medical marijuana more effective than conventional medications for PTSD and chronic pain. When a guy has been in four tours of Iraq and been shot in the chest, it’s hard to look him in the eye and say, “You just want to smoke pot because you’re a slacker.”

Different strains of marijuana are more likely to create anxiety or paranoia than others. The Israeli physician who identified THC, the component in marijuana that creates a high, discovered we have an “endocannabinoid system.” We manufacture cannabis and we have receptors for it. For people who don’t have enough or who get overwhelmed by trauma such as war an outside source can bring them back into balance.

Have you always specialized in marijuana policy?

No. One of the first things I took on was not marijuana, but a needle exchange program for injecting-drugs users favored by the Legacy Clinic in Montrose. This is essentially a freebie. The science is clear. It prevents blood-borne disease without increasing drug use. We weren’t asking for any tax money: charities would cover the exchange. We came close a couple of times, but never got it through. We’ll try again in 2015.

Texas is the only state that makes needle exchanges impossible, by banning purchasing syringes for illegal drug use. Is there something in Texas culture that reinforces this position?

Iran has needle exchange programs! But fundamentalist Christianity is preoccupied with “bodily sins.” Personal morality figures very highly. Sex. Dancing. There’s also a punitive streak in fundamentalist religion: ”We’re denying ourselves. You’re not denying yourself, so you should be punished.”

There’s an ascetic quality that one often finds among fundamentalists. When I was at Abilene Christian, I never felt personally repressed. But a girl got expelled for going to a dance during Christmas vacation. A guy was suspended for a year for drinking wine while he was in Europe. There is this belief in mortification of the flesh. That has eased up in many quarters, but it still plays a role in resisting changes to our drug laws.

Does the Baker Institute support your advocacy for drug policy reform? 

I’ve never had anything but encouragement. I have testified before the Texas House and Senate. I have written in the mainstream press about reform. I’ve organized conferences and worked in coalitions with a wide range of people. I know it does help that this initiative for reform is coming from the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

How have the supporters of reform changed in recent years?

They’ve really diversified. Some think of drug policy reform as a liberal cause, but this movement is supported the Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, Ron and Rand Paul, and many others. I’m working now with two women, conservative Tea Party members and members of a Bible church, who are fierce advocates for medical marijuana for autism. 

The Texas Association of Business and Legislative Budget Board last year was calling for lowering the penalties on things like cocaine possession. [Former District Attorney] Pat Lykos didn’t want to prosecute cases involving minute traces of drugs, and was supported by the command structure of the police department, but not the union. The organizations range from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, Mothers Against Teen Violence, and Texans for Medical Marijuana to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the ACLU, and NORML.

What are the chances for legislative reform in Texas?

For the first time, the reform coalition – which includes me – has a lobbyist. The legislative efforts are going to focus on putting together a decriminalization bill, a legalization bill, and a medical marijuana bill. The medical cannabis segment was going to call itself Texans for Medical Compassion, but changed the name to Texans for Medical Freedom.

You have a better chance of reform in initiative states such as Colorado and California, where voters can get things put on the ballot. In Texas you have to convince legislators to draw up a bill and then move it through a complicated process, with possible roadblocks at every turn. But if nothing goes wrong, and pressure builds, and more people recognize the potential for bringing in revenue, I think the medical marijuana bill has the best chance. We feel that the wind is finally at our backs.

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