Inhale With Hale

You'd almost have to be stoned to mix pot and politics, particularly if you were running for prosecuting attorney. If elected, it would be your job to uphold the very law you had a fondness for breaking. But Stephen Hale doesn't believe he's being hypocritical when he stumps for district attorney, which is just about every recent election cycle. "A prosecutor's job is to see that justice is done," he says. "It's unjust to prosecute people for possessing small amounts of marijuana--and a waste of valuable police resources."

That's why he dismissed more than 500 cases while he was Wise County district attorney, alienating the conservative Baptist community until he was voted out of office in 1996. That's why he ran for district attorney in Denton County in 1998, until his race unraveled after he was charged with delivering marijuana to a former girlfriend. That's why he planned to run for district attorney in Harris County until the Democratic Party withdrew his name from the ballot. And that's why he ran for district attorney in Galveston County until he was defeated in the March Democratic primary. "It's hard building a constituency out of old stoners," he says. "They just forget to vote."

At 49, Hale easily could be the next poster boy for marijuana activists as they turn their statewide lobbying efforts from medical to personal use. His campaigns don't bother with crime statistics, docket management or party politics. They are defined by one issue, the decriminalization of marijuana--the same issue that has defined and devastated his life.

Born in Dallas, Hale attended Mountain View College, until he was drafted into the Army, where his pot smoking picked up considerably, he says. "It made being a soldier a lot easier to take." It also made him careless. While retrieving a package of pot for an Army buddy at a bus station, he was busted by the Florida police. In 1974, he received three years' probation, which was expunged after he completed his sentence.

After leaving the Army, he attended North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, and then South Texas College of Law in Houston where he gained his law degree. The state Bar, however, refused to allow him to take the Bar exam. Its board of law examiners, he says, was concerned with only one question: Have you smoked marijuana since you got out of the Army? His honesty resulted in the board finding "that you do not possess present good moral character."

"So I showed them," he says. "I moved to Alaska," which at the time was one of the few states that had made it legal to possess marijuana in the privacy of your own home. For the next five years, he built a criminal practice, honing his considerable trial skills by representing a rogue's gallery of down-and-outers. But he tired of cold weather, and in 1985 returned to Texas, assuring the state Bar that if it would admit him, he had no intention of smoking pot. It did, and he didn't--at least not while he was an assistant district attorney in Grayson County, where he was obliged to prosecute marijuana cases.

When his parents retired to Wise County, he set up his law practice in Decatur before deciding to run for county attorney in 1992. He handily defeated his opponent, who also had a marijuana conviction, which effectively removed the issue from the campaign. Although Hale claims he ran with no pot agenda, he began dismissing marijuana cases (possession under 4 ounces) "in the interest of justice" shortly after he took office. When the sheriff caught on eight months later, Hale stood by his policy. This outraged several local narcotics officers who enlisted the help of the Wise County Messenger, which began a virulent campaign to rid the county of its prosecutor. Not that Hale was without his supporters, many of whom were pleased with his job performance. But he drew an opponent and lost by more than 350 votes after a bitter campaign that had him fending off rumors of homosexuality and drug parties. "Basically, politics suck," he told the Dallas Observer ("Zero Tolerance," November 14, 1996) in its profile of the race.

That attitude didn't last long. In 1997, friends persuaded him to move to Denton County to run for district attorney on a pro-pot platform. "I didn't think I could win," he admits. "But if enough people supported a marijuana candidate, it might send a message to the Legislature that the law needed to be changed." Hale didn't fathom the depths of the resentment he still engendered from law enforcement. In June 1997, six months before he announced for district attorney, a former girlfriend, Leah Hall, asked him to help her find some pot, he says. Time and again, he refused, but she claimed she was trying to kick a Valium addiction and pot eased her withdrawal. Turns out, Hall was a paid informant for "many of the same narcotics officers whose cases I had dismissed," Hale says. Although he eventually gave ("not sold," he stresses) Hall 2 ounces of marijuana, the police didn't arrest him until nine months after the incident, just a week after Hale became the Democratic candidate for district attorney.

With his indictment, Hale attempted to withdraw from the race; however, the secretary of state kept his name on the ballot because his withdrawal letter was not notarized. Despite receiving a two-year deferred probation on the delivery charge, he still received 26 percent of the vote. The state Bar also suspended his law license for 17 months, during which time he moved to Houston where he could only find work as a courier driver. When he learned there would be an open seat for the Harris County district attorney's race in 2000, he again felt compelled to run.

"Because I was a courier driver, I figured I could pass out fliers to get my name out," he says. "That would give me a soapbox for the cause." The Harris County Democratic Party saw it differently, fielding another candidate, he says, and removing his name from the primary ballot because his law license was suspended when he filed. Arguing his suspension would be lifted before the general election, Hale sued and lost. With his political future as limited as his job prospects, he moved to Galveston to pursue a career in bartending.

He worked at a popular beach bar but didn't get many shifts, he says, "because I am bald and ugly." Instead he bided his time until October 2000, when his law license was restored. Quickly, he built up a law practice, gaining a reputation in this laid-back community, says Galveston lawyer Wayne Lynch, "as someone who fights for his clients." Then came the news that the current district attorney was retiring, and once again, Hale couldn't resist. "I guess I am just a political junkie," he says.

Two other lawyers, both with histories as high-level prosecutors, also sought the Democratic nomination. "We joked that Stephen should use the slogan 'Inhale With Hale,'" says candidate Margaret Hindman. "But people did take him seriously." Apparently, Hale struck a chord with fellow surfers, aging hippies and libertarian retirees. "They wanted to vote for him to make a statement," Hindman says.

Hale stayed on message, passing out fliers that succinctly put the issue before voters. "Decriminalize Marijuana. Vote Stephen Hale for District Attorney." The other candidates maintained it was the Legislature's job to change unjust laws; a prosecutor, on the other hand, must enforce all the laws, including those for pot possession. The electorate must have agreed; Hale ran a distant third, receiving only 12.6 percent of the vote.

Yet even in defeat, he remains undaunted: His law practice is thriving, he surfs when the tide is high, and in true political fashion, he dances around questions regarding any plans he might have to run for the Legislature. "Let's just say I am not ruling it out."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald