Republished from Free Press Houston

By Austin Smith
Illustration by Austin Smith

Chances are, some of you flip through Free Press Houston, bowl packed and at the ready, casually skimming the articles. Maybe you’re sitting on the couch or laying on the bed, enjoying life as much as you can, whenever and however you can under late capitalism? No one can properly blame you, the world being what it is in 2015. I certainly won’t; I wholeheartedly hope you enjoy something which makes life a little sweeter – perhaps there’s a special occasion? Or maybe you partake for the fuck of it just because it’s Tuesday. Whatever reasons we all use cannabis, it remains tragically illegal.

I don’t get to partake primarily because it violates Army regulations (I’m in the Reserve), but I’m also not shy that I prefer cannabis over alcohol nor about my intention to fire up a vaporizer the very next day after I leave the service. My two tours in Iraq (one of them lasted only three months), while valuable life experiences, weren’t particularly remarkable. I’ve never been in a firefight, I was never wounded, and I don’t have PTSD. Others are not as lucky.

In short, I came home whole. Others didn’t. Those of us unaffected by injury or illness obviously like cannabis because it makes us feel good. Others need it because of what ails them, and Texas has taken a few steps in the right direction with a series of medical cannabis bills aimed at loosening regulations, as reported earlier by Free Press Houston.

Cannabis legalization enjoys generally strong support from Texans, 77% of whom think it should be legal to some degree. But recently, the Texas House voted to kill a medical cannabis amendment to House Bill 3404. The bill mandates Health and Human Services Commissions to conduct a study to evaluate possible treatments of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Longview Republican State Representative David Simpson submitted the amendment to HB 3404, which authorizes the use of cannabis for studies in its efficacy in treating P-T-S-D, but the amendment was voted down in a 54-80 vote.


Maybe you read that last paragraph a few times just to make sure you read correctly that a Texas Republican filed a pro-cannabis amendment. Indeed, Rep. Simpson is also the lone author of House Bill 2165, which repeals cannabis prohibition entirely. The House Criminal Justice Committee even approved it in a 5-2 vote. His reasoning is as surprising as HB2165’s progress — he opposes prohibition on conservative Christian principles.

“I don’t believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that government needs to fix,” Rep. Simpson writes in an op-ed published by the Texas Tribune entitled “The Christian case for drug law reform.”

I’m a stone cold atheist in the same vein as some very punchy, controversial, thoughtful, and courageous public figures like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, so Rep. Simpson’s Christian case, which he doesn’t elaborate as much as I’d like, is fascinating to me. Whatever his reasoning, my would-be fellow stoners, we have an ally on the other side of the aisle.

It’s been explained to me by a friend of the Orthodox Christian religion that his co-religionists view the church as a hospital for the soul and medicine a gift from God. The body and soul are entwined and that healing should be both physical and spiritual; if someone is getting physical healing, but ignoring the mental or spiritual aspects, they’re doing themselves a disservice. Borrowing from the language of the religious, veterans afflicted with PTSD often suffer physically and spiritually and with the story of Christ healing the blind and the sick as told in the Gospel, a Christian rationale for cannabis decriminalization, at the very least for medical use, seems entirely rational.


The Drug Enforcement Agency opposes cannabis legalization of any kind, having ruled that there is “no accepted medical use.” Their cynical, hair-on-fire take necessarily draws comparisons to the film “Reefer Madness”, the risible, panic-mongering anti-cannabis morality tale ruthlessly lampooned 77 years after its release. The film is available for free in the public domain. But there’s a funny thing about the DEA’s judgment that cannabis has no accepted medical use — it makes obtaining clearance to study cannabis so difficult that when someone manages to secure permission it makes national news, which brings me back to the dead amendment to HB 3404.

“[The Texas legislature] voted to not even allow a study of medical marijuana in veterans with PTSD. We consider that to be an act of willful ignorance,” says Dave Bass, Texas NORML’s Director for Veterans’ Outreach. “It’s the year 2015. 23 states in our Union have medical marijuana programs. Of those states, 11 allow PTSD as a qualifying condition. Veterans are currently, right this minute, using medical cannabis to treat their PTSD and it’s working very successfully.”

The anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of medical cannabis can seem powerfully convincing, even for people as high-profile as CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who came out as a supporter of medical cannabis after previous opposition. “Anecdote,” however, isn’t a synonym for “data.”

The outlook for medical cannabis in Texas is not good for the 2015 legislative session. Both bills to reduce or eliminate cannabis penalties as well as two more approving medical cannabis, seem headed for the same fate. The one bill which remains, HB 892, if approved, may prove useless to many in need of medical cannabis, according to some medical cannabis advocates.

Despite setbacks in Texas, veterans and others suffering from PTSD may fortunately rest their hopes on a woman by the name of Dr. Sue Sisley. She’s the former assistant professor fired from the University of Arizona under questionable circumstances, which some believe was due to her advocacy for research into the medical benefits of cannabis. She’s one of a handful of researchers to receive clearance from the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and a $2 million grant from the State of Colorado to legally study the effects of medical cannabis on PTSD. The question that remains is whether, or how much, the DEA will obstruct her research.

Medical cannabis has been studied for a number of other ailments with promising results. My personal interest in cannabis is merely recreational. While I hope I never need it medically, I hope the day I do, it will be legally available. For those who need it now, I wish them, and Dr. Sisley the best.

It’s going to be okay: two bills you really don’t need to worry about in an otherwise hostile legislature

Republished from Free Press Houston

By Blake Jones
Illustration by Blake Jones

The biennial Texas Legislative sessions are almost never cause for celebration for those of us on the political left. Blatant hypocrisy threatens ground gained in the battle against fracking, reproductive rights are under attack, and hard-won LGBT protections, won through bitter struggle in Houston, may be undone in Austin.

However, two firearms bills which would permit open carry and concealed carry on public universities sail easily through the Legislature, and will likely to be approved, generating much anxiety by the usual suspects. Before I to get into that, first a bit of up-front disclosure.

I am a Concealed Handgun License (CHL) holder and I own multiple firearms (with a particular fondness for Glocks and Eastern Bloc weaponry). I didn’t grow up around firearms, but I took to them quite naturally. I won’t break any marksmanship records but I can hold my own with a firearm. My military service only helped to increase my comfort around them because I’m a stickler for safety procedures (the military is all about firearms safety). I’m also one of the apparently rare and exotic political animals – I am a leftist in favor of gun rights.

I’m not the only leftist who feels this way; there’s actually a Facebook group which calls itself the “Socialist Rifle Association,” their stated mission being “to arm and train the working class for self-defense.” Similar leftist gun rights groups exist, but the caricature of the right-wing “gun nut” persists, at times for good reason. You know the type — the working-class conservative who votes against their own economic interests; someone who says disobliging things about racial minorities and LGBT folks, speaking with an accent that turns “hello” into a five syllable word, and “government” into a contraction and curse simultaneously. The most extreme pro-gun elements however, tend to alienate people otherwise sympathetic to gun rights advocacy be they on the left or right.

But among the golden throng of “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags in the gun rights sector of the political landscape, splotches of communist/socialist red and anarchist black can be found. There are evenintricately elaborated Marxist cases in favor of gun rights, and people I’ve come to think of as “non-traditional” gun rights advocates are too frequently overlooked in my opinion.

Politics aside, the usual liberal hand-wringing and scaremongering that suggests people are going to be magically induced to shoot random strangers at the stroke of Governor Abbott’s pen is in full force, and in my opinion, is as unfounded as it’s myopic. For one, in the 20 year history of concealed carry in Texas, the Texas Department of Public Safety keeps on file the conviction rates for concealed handgun license holders. Of all crimes listed, CHL holders overwhelmingly account for less than one percent of criminal convictions. We aren’t exactly a wild-eyed lawless bunch.

It’s also important to note that open carry and concealed campus carry won’t mean a complete free-for-all. Those bills would only allow those already licensed to carry concealed to do so. State law currently requires applicants to have their fingerprints on file, training that covers the laws governing weapons and the use of deadly force, handgun proficiency and safety, nonviolent dispute resolution, and proper storage practices which, if followed properly, eliminate the possibility of accidental injury to a child. State law also allows for what’s called “30.06 signage,” whereby a property owner or a place of business can legally prohibit a CHL holder from carrying on their premises. Violators can be arrested at risk of their CHL. Firearms are still not permitted in bars, nor college campuses, though the campus carry bill aims to expand concealed carry to public universities, and some already carry handguns on campus, illegally, with grim memories of the Virginia Tech shootings.

“I can tell you as a strong Second Amendment supporter —  somebody who runs in circles with people who frequently shoot, carry weapons, who have permits — my impression is that most of the people in Texas who have a permit do not carry a weapon now,” says military fiction author Chris Hernandez, also a 20 year veteran of Texas law enforcement.

“My impression is that there will be negligible impact with this law. Most people who aren’t carrying a weapon now, even though they have a permit, aren’t going to start carrying openly because tactically, you’re much better off carrying concealed. You will have small number of people who will open carry to make a point, just like the Open Carry Tarrant County morons up in Dallas/Fort Worth, walking into Chipotle with AKs, openly carry just to make a point. Those people will eventually get tired of the novelty.”

I rarely carry concealed myself, much less openly, except on the rural properties of close personal friends. That’s mostly as a result of my personal choice of weapon, which doesn’t lend well to comfortable inside-the-waistband concealed carry. Fashion concerns aside, I also have no illusions of fooling anyone by carrying concealed in a fanny pack. I’m more than aware of the increased responsibility of carrying concealed at all, to say nothing of carrying openly, and if anything, I’d feel much more exposed carrying openly, and I suspect I’m not alone.

“You find out carrying a pistol isn’t a magic wand.” Hernandez says. “It actually  generates a huge number of personal responsibilities. It puts you in additional danger if you do not exercise common sense precautions against being disarmed, if you don’t exercise situational awareness, or if you’re too cheap to afford a security holster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong because you’re carrying a weapon.”

My personal opposition to open carry is merely tactical, as I suspect will be the same for other CHL holders. For the occasional concealed carry citizen such as myself, the chief advantage of open carry legislation is that it lifts the worry that accidental exposure of a concealed handgun could lead to arrest and a costly legal battle — that’s it.

Whether you or I share common cause with those on the left or right when it comes to gun rights, or any other issue, it’s important to remember that no issue is truly “owned” by the left or right. As long as diversity reigns, and as long as we can find common cause, calm down about open carry and campus carry — it’s going to be okay.

I’ll see you at the range.


Republished from Free Press Houston

2015 had barely begun when, on the 7th of January, two gunmen forced their way into the headquarters of a French satirical publication and opened fire, killing twelve and wounding eleven. The gunmen were heard shouting “Allahu akbar” and “the Prophet is avenged.” The attack, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen would later claim credit, shocked the world with its motive and barbarity. Hundreds of thousands of French people turned out in marches and rallies across the country in shows of support. Leaders in the Muslim world joined millions of those from any or no faith in denouncing the vicious attacks.

But a troubling response also stood out, and should be addressed. Some leftist writers and publications joined right-wing religious conservatives and one controversial British Sunni Muslim cleric to say, more or less, that the publication, Charlie Hebdo, brought the killing upon themselves with the cartoons they published. The religious right saying that “they had it coming” isn’t the least bit surprising to me. What disappoints me, personally, is to see anyone at all from the left also say anything along the lines of “they had it coming.”

Brendan O’Neill, a British writer complains of the rise of today’s “Stepford student.” I share his concern about a generation of students so worried about their ideological and intellectual comfort that they’re willing to shut down people and ideas and discussions they don’t like. One common tactic is what’s called “no platforming,” where they petition universities to deny speaking opportunities to controversial figures.

The Charlie Hebdo murders are the ultimate example of a no platforming attempt, and censorship in one of its most extreme forms. I call it censorship because it is a successful attempt to silence people by killing those who produce what others find objectionable. The dead certainly won’t be able to produce anymore writings or cartoons  so, mission accomplished? Fortunately not, because It’s also a similarly extreme case of the Streisand effect, which states that any attempt to suppress the publication of something exacerbates its spread with a print run of at least 3 million copies of Charlie Hebdo (which normally prints roughly 60,000 copies) without any interruption.  The point of advocating for free speech is the respect of the right to present words and ideas which challenge those words and ideas which should be challenged, which should be any idea, in almost any form.

This massacre inevitably evokes comparisons with the Rushdie Affair. In 1988 British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie wrote a book called The Satanic Verses. The book, which Rushdie described as not being about Islam, but immigrant experiences of “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay” faced accusations of blasphemy. For this, he was placed under a religious order by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran calling on Muslims (at the time Rushdie was one) to kill him and his publishers…for writing a book. Many of his translators would face violent attacks, some of them fatal, for making such a book more available globally. Rushdie has since 2006 described himself a “hard-line atheist” and the order still remains in place. In 2012, he wrote a book about his experiences in a life of hiding entitled Joseph Anton, the alias he used while running for his life.

It’s important to remember the hostile response too many had at the time for, guess who? Salman Rushdie. Labor and Conservative members of the British parliament at the time villainized him by marching in favor of banning the book, or denouncing him for blasphemy and betraying everything about his upbringing. But Salman Rushdie to this day rightly laments such sentiments similarly expressed in today’s publications, and in the blogosphere as the arrival of the “‘But Brigade.’” “Murder is wrong, but…” “I’m all for free speech, but…”

Today some similarly couch their not-quite-but-maybe-one-or-two-steps-removed sympathies for the attackers, or lack thereof for the victims, in calling the publication racist. Some writers do so with no evidence, nor even a single argument in support of that claim. Others do so by quoting long-time French Communist Party supporter Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the gunned-down cartoonists, in which he simply says that he is not a Muslim.

Certainly, some of their cartoons come off as questionable at first glance. I don’t know exactly what they were trying to get at with their Boko Haram cover, for example. I don’t speak French, so some of the contexts and nuances are inaccessible to me. Some French citizens have expressed their annoyance at these accusations of racism, noting that the supposedly racist cartoons actually, ironically ridicule the attitudes and policies of the French Right. They also express irritation with Americans who arrogated the role of Grand Cultural Arbiter without taking any real interest in French politics and culture. Unfortunately, the people who produced these images are no longer alive to explain them.

The refrain we hear from those who apparently sympathize with the attackers is that “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.” That may do well and good for someone getting fired from their job for saying something stupid in public, but 22 people were made casualties because a group of people feel that people should die for drawing cartoons. Bluntly put, the term used to describe this behavior is victim-blaming.

Some are concerned that these attacks will stoke the enduring climate of Islamophobia in Europe, which has taken on a more substantive and sinister veneer with far-right, nationalist parties making substantial gains since the recession began. Parisian Mosques have been attacked in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. It would be no surprise were it the work of far-right supporters of Front Nationale (the far right political party which picked up 25% of the vote in the last election). It should be noted, too, that far-right gains come also with the specter of anti-semitism, which looms in ways not seen for decades.

But we should not let this discourage us from principled stands in favor of free speech. You don’t have to fall into the trap some censorship advocates set of being goaded into defending content of a statement while defending the right to say it. Regarding free speech, It’s been said “It’s all okay, or none of it’s okay”. I steadfastly agree with that.  Everything should be open for discussion, every subject should be on the table, and everyone should have the right to hear, or not hear what they want to (with very few exceptions, none of which easily come to mind), without others assuming the power to control what others get to see and hear because they don’t like it.  What people say should stand or fall on its own merits.