Will Texas Turn Green? Pot Panelists Say the State Is Ready

At SXSW, advocates say Texas lawmakers could add some financial cushioning to the budget by legalizing — and taxing — marijuana.

Advocacy groups and lawmakers say marijuana policy reform in Texas could be the fiscally responsible thing to do in light of an upcoming budget shortfall.
Advocacy groups and lawmakers say marijuana policy reform in Texas could be the fiscally responsible thing to do in light of the state’s decreasing oil and gas revenues.

Texas legislators should look to marijuana policy reform to save, and even make, money in the face of looming budget shortfalls, said SXSW panelist Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, in front of what he called the “wake and bake crowd” Tuesday morning.

“It’s not an ideological barrier,” said Martin. “Anything that’s going to move is going to move because of money.”

The “Turn Texas Green” panel brought legislators and advocates together to discuss how the Lone Star State could legalize pot for medical or even recreational use.

Zoe Russell, from the Houston nonprofit Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), said some “establishment” Republicans already “see the writing on the wall” with decriminalization policies at the local level. In 2015, Harris County’s Republican DA implemented a “First Chance” policy allowing non-violent offenders with small amounts of marijuana to be ticketed, rather than arrested.

But so far, few statewide elected officials have been willing to put their names on marijuana legislation, Russell said.

“Behind closed doors, they’re really supportive of ideas like this,” Russell told the audience of around 15 or so. “[But] they’re scared of their shadow.”

As Texas’ oil and gas revenues drop dramatically, panelists said the state’s money woes may override the squeamishness many legislators have about legalizing weed.

Colorado state Representative Jonathan Singer argued weed should be regulated and taxed like alcohol, and that Texas could echo Colorado’s “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” mindset. His state, he said, has so far taken in $66 million in marijuana taxes in the current fiscal year.

“We’re actually receiving more tax revenue from marijuana than we are from alcohol,” Singer said.

During the 2015 session, the Texas Legislature passed an extremely limited medical marijuana bill known as the Compassionate Use Act that legalized low-THC cannabidiol (CBD) oil for patients with epilepsy. The legislation has a hitch, however — it allows doctors to “prescribe” CBD oil, but federal law only allows doctors to “recommend” THC-related treatments.

When Arizona lawmakers passed a similarly worded law in the 1990s, no patients were able to legally obtain CBD oil. Nonetheless, the law set the stage for broad medical marijuana legalization there years later.

Texas’ CBD law was the only one of three major marijuana bills to pass in Texas last session. Each of the three focused on a different prong of marijuana reform: legalizing very limited medical use, decriminalizing possession, and fully legalizing adult marijuana use, often called “recreational” use.

Zoe Russell of Houston's Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, second from left, told the SXSW crowd that “Prohibition doesn’t even work. People are still out there using marijuana and we’re just arresting them. Just rinse and repeat.”
Hannah McBride
Zoe Russell of Houston’s Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, second from left, told the SXSW crowd that “Prohibition doesn’t even work. People are still out there using marijuana and we’re just arresting them. Just rinse and repeat.”

A military veteran asked panelists about the potential for legalizing medical marijuana use for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other chronic issues veterans often face. Last session, Republican lawmakers in the Texas House rejected an amendment that would have commissioned, in part, the study of medical marijuana treatment for veterans with PTSD.

“It feels like an uphill battle with each condition,” Russell said, “because Republicans, and Democrats, too, are skeptical of marijuana as medicine altogether.”

Texas state Representative Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said more medical use bills will be filed when the Legislature reconvenes in 2017.

“I think because of the passage of the Compassionate Use Act, there is some momentum for doing some kind of medical front, specifically for veterans,” Moody said.

Moody, a former prosecutor, also said that he plans to reintroduce a decriminalization bill that would save counties money on jail and court time.

Progress Texas is crowdfunding a $63,000 study on the revenue that marijuana reform could unleash.

“It’s going to be slow change,” Martin said, “but Texas is ready for these laws.”

Hannah McBride, a bike commuter and Topo Chico guzzler, is an editorial fellow at the Observer. Previously, she wrote for the Boston Globe and screened calls for NPR's Car Talk.

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