Beto O’Rourke’s blunt support of marijuana legalization gives advocates hope for policy change

Beto O'Rourke speaks during a 2019 campaign event. - Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
Beto O'Rourke speaks during a 2019 campaign event.

At a crowded rally in downtown Austin, Beto O’Rourke ticked off his usual laundry list of campaign promises: stabilizing the power grid, rolling back the state’s new permitless carry law and expanding health care access.

But the El Paso Democrat got some of the loudest cheers of the night when he promised to legalize marijuana in Texas, something he said “most of us, regardless of party, actually agree on.”

“I’ve been warned that this may or may not be a popular thing to say in Austin, Texas,” O’Rourke said to the crowd gathered in Republic Square Park in December. “But when I am governor, we are going to legalize marijuana.”

The support is nothing new for the gubernatorial candidate. O’Rourke has championed legalization efforts throughout his political career, ever since his time as a member of the El Paso city council. He also nodded at the policy throughout his failed campaigns for U.S. Senate and for president.

But in his early run for governor, O’Rourke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has repeatedly mentioned legalizing marijuana on the campaign trail across Texas. Advocates hope the increased attention will give momentum to legalization efforts in a state with some of the harshest penalties and highest arrest rates for marijuana possession.

O’Rourke’s advocacy around the issue dates back at least to his time on the El Paso City Council in 2009 when he pushed for a resolution calling on Congress to have “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition” of marijuana.

Despite unanimously passing the city council, then-Mayor John Cook vetoed the nonbinding measure. Cook got some help from then-U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who warned council members the city could lose federal funds if they continued with their effort.

O’Rourke went on to challenge and defeat Reyes in the 2012 Democratic primary for his congressional seat. During that race, Reyes released an ad attacking O’Rourke’s position on marijuana legalization.

“Legalizing drugs is not the answer. Even our children understand that,” a narrator said in a video campaign ad that showed children shaking their heads. “Say NO to Drugs. Say NO to Beto.”

While O’Rourke did not campaign on the policy throughout that race, advocates at the time pointed to his victory as a sign of the changing attitudes around marijuana legalization.

O’Rourke’s viewpoint is influenced by his hometown of El Paso, which he writes about extensively in his 2011 book “Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico,” co-written with fellow City Council member Susie Byrd.

For 15 years before 2008, there was an average of 236 murders per year in Ciudad Juárez, the sister city of El Paso, O’Rourke wrote. That number rose to 316 in 2007 before skyrocketing to 1,623 in 2008. There was a “pernicious influence,” O’Rourke wrote: the “multibillion dollar hemispheric vice between supply and demand,” where “North America consumes illegal drugs” and “Mexico supplies them.”

The book draws a correlation between government crackdowns on the illicit trade and the number of murders. By regulating, controlling and taxing the marijuana market, O’Rourke and Byrd posit the U.S. could save lives. The authors call for restricting sales to adults, providing licenses to help regulate, limiting smoking to nonpublic spaces and prohibiting advertisers from appealing to children.

Once in Congress, O’Rourke continued efforts to roll back federal marijuana regulations — to no avail.

In 2017, he introduced a bill repealing a rule that prevented federal funds from going to states that don’t enforce a law revoking or suspending drivers’ licenses over drug offense convictions. He supported several failed attempts to protect states who had legalized the drug from federal incursion. O’Rourke sought to compel courts to seal records for nonviolent offenses involving marijuana. He co-sponsored a bill that would allow students convicted of marijuana possession to maintain their eligibility for federal aid. He also supported various measures to increase research into and expand the availability of medical cannabis, particularlyfor veterans.

None of those bills became law.

If O’Rourke becomes governor, his plans to legalize marijuana would face another set of hurdles in the form of the Texas Legislature, particularly Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the state Senate.

After the House in April 2019 gave preliminary approval to a bill that would have reduced criminal penalties for Texans possessing small amounts of marijuana, Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.

There’s been some momentum for more progressive marijuana policies within Patrick’s party in recent sessions. In 2019, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed bills that would relax laws restricting medical cannabis access. Both of those reforms failed to become law. But Gov. Greg Abbott in May did sign a watered-down expansion of Texas’ medical marijuana program to include people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patrick did not comment for this story. In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, a Patrick spokesperson said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

Abbott didn’t answer questions on his position regarding marijuana legalization.

Legalization advocates hope O’Rourke’s candidacy can move opinions among state leaders on relaxing marijuana restrictions.

“Hopefully with Beto O’Rourke presumably being the Democratic nominee, we can push the other candidates in the race to talk about this issue more, to come to the table and have a conversation about how these policies are having negative impacts on our state,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

Marijuana legalization draws some broad support across the state. According to a June 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 60% of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal. That figure includes 73% of Democrats, 74% of independents and 43% of Republicans.

Mike Siegel, the co-founder of Ground Game Texas, a nonprofit focused on supporting progressive policies around “workers, wages, and weed,” said the issue is an opportunity for O’Rourke to reach independent or nonaligned voters.

“[Marijuana policy] is a major opportunity for [O’Rourke] to reach out to middle of the road, independent or nonaligned voters and even some Republican voters,” Siegel said. “A governor's race that's high-profile like the one that is coming up, where it could be Beto O’Rourke versus Greg Abbott, that’s the best opportunity to push these populist wedge issues.”

But Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said marijuana legalization isn’t a “terribly important issue” for voters on its own. Its political salience depends on the issues tied to the policy, he said, whether that is the economy, criminal justice system or health care.

Advocates for legalization tie the issue to racial justice. In his 2011 book, O’Rourke linked the drug’s prohibition in the early 20th century to racist fears of Mexican immigrants. Advocates today highlight the racial disparities in existing law’s enforcement. Black Texans are 2.6 times more likely than white Texans to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to an April 2020 ACLU report. In 2018, Texas had the highest total number of marijuana possession arrests in the country, according to the report, which found the state ranks 41st for largest racial disparities in such arrests.

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who served as political director on O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign, said the tide is turning on policies relating to cannabis enforcement. For example, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, co-authored the 2019 bill that would have reduced penalties for possession before Patrick killed it.

“A Gov. O’Rourke would certainly turn that tide a lot quicker because of his position on these issues. But ultimately, to get something to the governor’s desk, you’ve got to get it through the Senate,” Moody said. “Our focus has to be on changing hearts and minds in the Senate.”

Moody would know something about changing opinions. Now one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of reducing penalties for marjiuana charges, he said he disagreed with O’Rourke’s position on marijuana a decade ago. Overhauling American drug policy wasn’t going to “flip the switch on violence,” he said of his feelings at the time. But he said he’s since grown “much more comfortable” with the idea that legalization is “a major piece of the puzzle.”

O’Rourke was “ahead of the curve” on marijuana legalization, Moody said, a quality he added the public should seek from their leaders.

For Moody, El Paso — which became the first U.S. city to outlaw marijuana usage in 1915 — is the place to lead that charge.

“If you’re going to right the wrong, if you think this is a scourge on our system, and it began here, then let’s let it end here. Let’s lead the way to end it,” Moody said. “That certainly is something that weighs heavily on my mind and on my shoulders when I work on this policy, and I imagine it’s the same for [O’Rourke].”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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