What makes people change their minds about drugs? Specifically, what has prompted political 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?
For sociologist William Martin, one of Texas’ strongest advocates of drug-law reform, 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 for Public Policy, 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, authoring seven books and writing regularly for publications ranging from The Atlantic to Texas Monthly.
Martin says that his own experience with illegal drugs was limited to a few timid tokes of marijuana in the early 1970s; 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.
“This is not something I expected to be doing in my old age,” he says. “But it’s pretty interesting.”