Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

October 7th, 2022:

The Biden marijuana pardons

A pretty big deal.

Calling the criminalization of marijuana a “failed approach,” President Joe Biden announced a pardon of all federal marijuana possession charges Thursday — and urged governors to follow suit with state-level convictions for marijuana possession.

The federal pardon will affect about 6,500 people, The New York Times reported, but the vast majority of marijuana possession crimes are charged on the state level, not in a federal case.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday about Biden’s announcement.

Abbott’s gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, was quick to announce his support for the president’s action.

“When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

According to the Texas law, the governor can issue pardons only if a majority of Board of Pardons and Paroles members make such a recommendation in writing.

[…]

This year through August, Texas prosecutors filed more than 14,000 misdemeanor pot possession charges, so far leading to more than 5,000 convictions, according to statewide court data. Pot possession is a misdemeanor for up to 4 ounces, and a felony for quantities beyond that.

Marijuana prosecutions dropped dramatically after 2019, when Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and as a result complicated how law enforcement can determine if something is illegal cannabis. In 2018, for example, nearly 50,000 misdemeanor marijuana charges were filed.

I assume that a relatively large portion of the 6,500 people who will receive the federal pardon are in Texas; we’re a big state with a significant non-white population, so just on the numbers we’ll be home to a lot of the beneficiaries of this. I haven’t seen what that number might be, nor do I know how many people could be pardoned for state offenses, if Greg Abbott were so moved. We know that loosening marijuana laws polls well in Texas, though it’s not clear to me if these pardons would be as popular; my guess is they’d have significant support but maybe not as much as expanding medical marijuana access or decriminalizing pot for recreational use. This announcement may help charge up the youth vote, but again it’s hard to say by how much or what the net effect might be. We’re unlikely to get any insight from polling at this point.

The President’s actions were right on the merits and I daresay good on the politics. They were sufficiently long-awaited that I’d say some people had expected them to never happen. As is usually the case with federal action, Texas will get the smallest possible benefit from it because our state leaders won’t allow for any more than that. I assume I don’t need to tell you what we could do to affect that.

City news release website hacked

Oops.

Looking for a mail-order Russian bride or wondering how to order a school term paper online? Or maybe you want to improve your slot machine skills by playing online casino games. The city of Houston’s official website for news releases has you covered.

The page on Wednesday morning featured a spate of blog entries on a variety of confounding topics that were decidedly unrelated to City Hall. They were taken down by the afternoon, after the Houston Chronicle inquired about them.

The source of the blog entries, many of which were nonsensical, was unknown Wednesday. Mary Benton, the city’s communications director, said she alerted the information technology department to the posts. The listed author on the articles, a housing department employee named Ashley Lawson, did not actually write and post them, Benton said.

The entries appeared on the city’s news site, cityofhouston.news, a WordPress blog that does not share a domain with the city’s primary website, houstontx.gov.

Christopher Mitchell, the city’s chief information security officer, said no city information was compromised.

“We were recently made aware of improper posts appearing on a blog site utilized by the city to allow individual departments to post departmental content,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The blog site is hosted on a third-party platform and is not connected to any City of Houston enterprise systems. At no point did the city experience a compromise of city systems, data, or information. The origin of the posts was from an active account that was no longer in use, and the city is taking all necessary precautions to correct the issue and prevent a recurrence.”

The posts, often in broken or garbled English, had appeared at least 29 times since Sept. 13, displayed as “uncategorized” entries among more routine posts about police and fire investigations and where to get a flu shot.

Yeah, from a cybersecurity perspective this is (most likely) more of an embarrassment than a breach. It’s a good reminder of why obsolete accounts should be routinely deleted, or at least disabled. There are simple ways to monitor for this kind of activity – even fairly low-tech solutions, like automatically emailing new post notifications to an admin, are worthwhile – and I suspect the city will be doing that in the future. If you have to experience a public cybersecurity failure, there are much worse ways to do so. Please take this relatively painless opportunity to learn from it.

Our big mail ballot test is now underway

Sure hope we do better this time.

Harris County officials on Monday urged residents to follow the correct mail voting guidance as the end-of-the-month deadline to apply for mail-in ballots for the 2022 midterm elections nears.

This year’s primary elections in March experienced a surge in mail ballot rejections due to voter confusion over new requirements passed under Senate Bill 1. The new law requires residents to provide their Texas drivers license number or Social Security number when applying for a mail ballot and on the envelope containing their completed ballot. The number must match the number associated with their voter registration.

The Texas Secretary of State earlier this year said voters could put both numbers on their ballots and applications to avoid having them rejected.

Across the state, more than 12 percent of all mail ballots – nearly 25,000 – were rejected during the primaries. The rate was six times what it was in the 2018 midterm election. In Harris County, the rejection rate reached 40 percent initially before falling to 19 percent.

Areas with sizable Black populations were 44 percent more likely to see their ballots rejected than heavily white areas, according to a New York Times analysis based on data by the Harris County election administrator’s office.

Ballot rejection numbers were driven down by the time of the primary runoffs after election officials in some counties included additional instructions about identification requirements with voters’ mail ballots.

[…]

Since the primaries, the Elections Administration Office has implemented new measures to ensure a smoother voter experience for the midterms, according to Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum. That includes the addition of customer support specialists to assist mail-in voters and dozens of community events to raise awareness of proper voting procedures, Tatum said.

As you know, I’ve blogged about this a lot – see here for the most recent entry. I was encouraged by the improvements in the two May elections, but there are still a lot of people who will be voting for the first time under the new law, and the potential for a lot of rejections remains. My older daughter, now attending college out of state, will get to experience it herself. I hope these efforts have the desired effect. If you or someone you know will be voting by mail for the first time this fall, follow the instructions and use both the drivers license number and the SSN unless you know for sure which number you used on your voter registration. Don’t let your ballot get tossed out. KUHF has more.

The nightmare hurricane scenario

Sorry, but we have to think about it.

Eric Berger, meteorologist, Space City Weather editor and senior space editor at Ars Technica, said when it comes to hurricanes there are three principal threats to worry about: storm surge, winds and rainfall.

“Typically, with a hurricane you might get one or two of these threats in a particular area,” Berger said.

Ian is different though.

“The reason I say this is a nightmare storm is because for a sizable chunk of Florida it brought all three threats,” Berger said.

He said it is absolutely possible for this kind of storm to hit the Houston area.

“The odds of it happening in any given year are pretty low — probably one in 100. But absolutely it could happen in any given hurricane season,” Berger said.

Surges generally only affect coastal areas or areas within 10 to 15 feet above the water’s surface level. In Houston, those would be places like Galveston and Seabrook, Berger said.

Unlike storm surges, wind can have a wider effect. Wind damage can extend 100 miles inland in the Houston area, Berger said. He noted Hurricane Ike in 2008, when winds were enough to take down the power grid for about two weeks.

For Ike, he said there was a fairly large storm surge along the coast and there was some wind damage, but inland rainfall wasn’t a major issue. For Harvey, he said there was not much wind or storm surge issues in Houston, but there was about 50 inches of rainfall. Houston has yet to see a triple threat like Ian with a damaging storm surge, powerful winds and heavy inland rainfall.

Berger said a storm like Ian would be the worst case scenario for Houston.

“It would really change our community forever,” he said.

He said the immediate impacts would be devastation to parts of Galveston island, Bolivar Peninsula and coastal communities, along with wind damage at least up to Interstate 10. Wind damage would rip roofs off buildings, knock trees down and cause power outages lasting weeks to months. A storm surge threatens to cause environmental catastrophe since many chemical facilities along the Houston Ship Channel are only built up to about 15 feet, meaning there could be facility flooding with toxic leakages in the environment, Berger said. All of this would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“It would be very difficult for this population to come back as vibrant as it is now,” Berger said.

We hope that the long-awaited Ike Dike will help mitigate the effect of a large storm surge. Wind and rain, there’s only so much we can do and most of it is in planning and construction – engineer buildings to withstand high winds, and don’t build things in areas prone to flooding. Maybe there’s more than that, but it feels like mostly hope to me. And if something has a one percent chance of happening in a given year, then over a fifty-year span the odds it will happen at least once are about 40%. Not the most comforting thought.