How Weed Advocates Hope to Spark Legalization in Texas

Less than a mile from the Whatcom County Courthouse and even closer to Bellingham High School sits Top Shelf Cannabis, the first store to open and operate after Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use. Hundreds of people of all ages, including people in their 70s, lined up at Top Shelf when its doors opened at 8 a.m. on July 8, the Bellingham Herald reported. About three miles north of that dispensary, near an elementary school and a high school, is 20/20 Solutions, which opened in Bellingham, a town just south of the Canadian border, a few days after the legal pot law took effect.

Among those who visited both dispensaries during the first week of operations was Heather Fazio, the Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national pot lobbying force behind the legalization efforts in Washington as well as in Colorado—the first state to implement marijuana legalization on January 1 this year. “Nearly every dispensary was sold out or we were unable to get products. Luckily, two dispensaries did have products,” Fazio said of Top Shelf Cannabis and 20/20 Solutions. “It wasn’t that much different than seeing a liquor store.”

Fazio just happened to be in Washington when the law took effect as she made her way up the West Coast from California to Canada on a road trip. Driving back to Austin, Fazio decided to swing through Colorado for a legal marijuana fact-finding mission. She hopes it will bolster MPP’s efforts to get a bill that will legalize weed in the Lone Star state introduced in Texas’ 2015 legislative session.

[CHARTS: Public Policy Polling surveyed 860 Texas voters on their attitudes toward medicinal marijuana, decriminalization, and full legalization and regulation.]

“We went to Colorado and saw Medicine Man, a local dispensary that started out as medicinal and expanded when marijuana became legal,” Fazio said. “It was really cool to see it alive and in action and see the business side of things and really how professional of an operation it is. As a matter of fact, Medicine Man is expanding. They got the building next to them. It’s a whole new operation. When we walked in, it was white and clean and perfect. It felt like the white room from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

Fazio took dozens of photos: a room packed full of large green marijuana plants illuminated by strong lights; bar codes; Radio-Frequency Identification tags; labels that identify seedling cannabis plants as either being destined for recreational or medicinal use. “As soon as they get roots, [growers] designate [plants as] medical or recreational and it stays that way all the way through the process from a little clone getting roots to the final product, whether it’s infused into oil or into food and sold to consumers,” she said.

These are the types of details and facts Fazio intends to present to Texas legislators, who she says might simply be unable to envision how a legal marijuana operation would work because of the anti-pot War on Drugs rhetoric that has dictated the national conversation for decades.

“So many of our legislators have been tough on crime and for them to start thinking outside of that, you have to think about sales,” Fazio said of her strategy. “We have to paint a picture and tell the story of how it looks when adult business owners are providing the product for the market where there’s a demand for it, the different aspects of the business and the economic incentives to want to do this.”

As for providing a glimpse of the economic incentive of legalized marijuana, Fazio wants people to look west. “Absolutely, there’s that economic incentive,” Fazio said, referring to Colorado’s tax revenue from marijuana. “But of course, in Texas, we like to say we are fiscally conservative and that money should be kept in the hands of people. Colorado’s tax rate is over 35 percent on recreational marijuana and it’s a significant rate of taxation.” According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, there’s a 10 percent sales tax on marijuana products that is coupled with a preexisting 2.9 percent state sales tax, plus local jurisdiction taxes and a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana. In Denver, according to a November 6, 2013, story in the Denver Post, those factors equate to a 29 percent tax on retail marijuana sales. In May 2014, the state collected a little more than $5.7 million in taxes, licenses and fees. So far for the year, nearly $34.9 million in pot tax dollars have poured into the state’s coffers, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

That’s a lot of money, and Fazio would like to see Texas stick to its idealogical guns and avoid such a heavy tax burden. “I’d really love Republicans to see that using limited government ... can set an example for what minimal regulation and taxation can do for business owners and the economy,” Fazio said of allowing legal marijuana businesses in Texas.

It seems that some Texas Republicans are ready to start talking, though they might still be drowned out by louder, more established voices. The Texas Republican Party’s 2014 Temporary Platform Committee report included pro-medicinal marijuana language in its Healthcare and Nutritional Supplements section. “We support the rights of all adults to their choice of nutritional products and alternative health care ... We urge the Texas Legislature to allow, encourage and facilitate the study at our Texas medical schools [concerning] the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis,” the draft report stated. In the first minority report, several committee members recommended changing the wording of that platform to read as “We believe that Texans should have legal access to medical cannabis as a controlled narcotic prescribed by a physician.” But another minority report recommended removing all language about medical marijuana from the party platform for the 84th Legislature. In the final version of the party’s platform, all language about cannabis had been removed from the health care and nutrition section.

Yet even Governor Rick Perry seems to have warmed to changing the marijuana laws in Texas. Back in January during a panel on drug policy at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Perry said that states should be able to make their own decisions when it comes to marijuana legalization.

“As the governor of the second-largest state in the country, what I can do is start us on policies that can start us on the road towards decriminalization,” Perry said, while demurring from discussing full legalization.

Fazio said Perry’s statements have loosened up conservative legislators and given them the green light to have a conversation about marijuana policy in Texas. “It’s OK to start talking about how we can reform our laws to better serve the people of Texas and I appreciate that he got pressed on the issue and that he didn’t avoid it,” Fazio said. “It’s great that the conversation is being had about reforming laws to make society better in a very significant way. Prohibition of alcohol was so negative, and that was [for] 13 years. We’ve seen decades of horrible marijuana prohibition and now we get to right that wrong.”

Will Texas legalize by 2019?

It’s these shifting attitudes throughout the nation and even within conservatives in Texas that prompts the Marijuana Policy Project to lobby hard on every aspect of marijuana legalization.

“What we see across the country is a sweeping change where people are finally putting it into policy. The fact is, prohibition has failed and we need to repeal it. Texas is not going to be the last state that legalizes marijuana,” Fazio said. “The goal is to have full legalization by 2019, with an open legal market that is similar to alcohol.” Fazio said.

The Marijuana Policy Project will lobby to introduce three bills in 2015 that would legalize medical marijuana, decriminalize pot by setting civil penalties with no opportunity for jail time, or—of course—fully legalize marijuana for recreational use and state regulation, Fazio said.

Last September, Public Policy Polling, which polls for the Democratic Party and other progressive organizations on a private basis, conducted a three-day poll of 860 Texas voters. According to the data it published, 41 percent of voters polled strongly supported full marijuana legalization in Texas and 24 percent were strongly opposed. Seventeen percent of voters somewhat supported full legalization and 14 percent were somewhat opposed. As for legal medicinal marijuana in the Lone Star State, 58 percent of voters supported it and 31 percent were opposed. The largest percentage of Texas voters supported decriminalization with 61 percent siding with the notion and 30 percent of voters opposing decriminalization. The 860 voters included 42 percent who registered as Republicans, 35 percent who registered as Democrats and 23 percent who registered as independents or other. Karli Christine Duran, founder and Executive Director of the San Antonio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), thinks attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving.

“I think that the ball fell into the court of the marijuana activists really quickly in a very short period of time,” Duran said, explaining that in addition to Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and along with 23 states and the District of Columbia that have medicinal pot laws, there are major media influencers—like CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, who apologized last year for his opposition to medicinal cannabis—that changed their stance on pot. “I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis,” Gupta wrote in an August 8, 2013, column titled “Why I Changed my Mind on Weed.” “Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have ‘no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.’”

Duran said prominent medical organizations (including the government’s own National Cancer Institute) have begun to recognize marijuana’s medicinal use over the past few years, which has also softened opposition to the plant. Because of more scientific research and attention from mainstream media, public perception is changing toward not just the economics of cannabis, but also the benefits medicinal marijuana can provide to sick patients, Duran said.

And it’s medical marijuana—not recreational marijuana or decriminalization of pot—that Duran believes has a chance of passage during Texas’ next legislative session. “It didn’t pass last year, but we have a chance [in 2015]. One of the reasons being we have lobbyists,” Duran said, referencing the Marijuana Policy Project.

And support for medical marijuana is starting to come from unlikely places. According to Fazio, who attended a veterans conference in mid-July, military veterans are increasingly claiming publicly that medicinal marijuana treats Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which afflicts many men and women returning home from war.

This brings out other veterans and veteran advocates searching for alternatives to addictive pharmaceutical opiates for sufferers of chronic mental and physical distress. Those interested in service member suicide prevention are also looking to marijuana’s possible psychotropic benefits.

According to the Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, Israeli doctor Raphael Mechoulam’s research on mice has shown that marijuana may reduce the association between stimuli like loud noises or stress and traumatic situations in veterans suffering from PTSD. Mechoulam discovered the psychoactive compound in marijuana, along with other breakthroughs related to cannabis throughout his career. And in a recent Texas Monthly article, William Martin, a Harry and Hazel Chavanne senior fellow in Religion and Public Policy and director of the Drug Policy Program for Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, interviewed numerous Texas military veterans who said marijuana not only treated their PTSD symptoms, it changed their quality of life for the better—despite their fear of arrest.




The Right Side of the Law

Outside of the potential benefits cannabis offers to Texans suffering ailments from PTSD to chemotherapy side effects, pot advocates argue that the criminalization of marijuana is a burden on the justice system.

“It causes too many people doing no harm to acquire a permanent label as a criminal; it costs too much in arrests, jail, probation and other expenses; it provides an illegal and profitable market to Mexican and other criminal drug trafficking operations; it corrupts various levels of the justice system; and it doesn’t work. How’s that for starters,” William Martin wrote via email when asked if there is anything wrong with current marijuana policy in the Lone Star state.

Fazio and Duran concur. “Law enforcement is one of our biggest opponents and it has a lot to do with the funding they get for enforcing drug laws. It’s the culture. Law enforcement has it engrained in them that they have to go after this,” Fazio said. “There’s that strong Texas culture of being tough on crime. The reality is repealing prohibition would allow us to use limited resources effectively in serving victims of real crimes and protecting people.” Duran added that the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of people accused of possession of small amounts of marijuana contribute to jail overcrowding and at a significant cost to taxpayers. “Once prosecution starts and you go through the court and all that stuff, you’re tacking on thousands more,” Duran said of the cost to taxpayers when prosecuting marijuana misdemeanors.

While acknowledging that marijuana is a psychoactive drug that can have negative effects, particularly with heavy use, Martin doesn’t think that’s enough of a reason for Texas’ current draconian marijuana laws. “It is far less dangerous, personally and socially, than alcohol. There is simply no convincing justification for treating its use as a crime,” Martin said of cannabis. In Texas, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can result in a maximum 180-day stint in jail coupled with a max $2,000 fine.

However, people convicted of this misdemeanor may also be eligible for drug court, available in 42 of Texas’ 254 counties. Drug courts are a pretrial diversion that offer less harsh punishments for people caught with small amounts of marijuana. Supporters claim these courts provide offenders with treatment and lead to less recidivism.

During the World Economic Forum, Governor Perry and Martin found a shaky middle ground when Perry said Texas’ use of drug courts has been successful in finding another way to deal with low-level offenders. A 2001 law required all Texas counties with populations of 550,000 or more to establish drug courts, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“Those are admirable positions for him to take,” Martin said of Perry and his comments in Davos. “Some suggest they represent a political calculation, getting in tune with a changing climate on the issue. Whatever his motive, it is a positive sign.”

When it comes to nonviolent possession, Martin said almost every way to deal with it “should not include the criminal justice system.” He referenced Portugal, a country that removed criminal penalties from all drugs in 2000. “If a person’s use poses a problem, it is handled through a panel of people that recommends counseling, treatment or other measures,” he said of Spain’s neighbor.

While Martin believes most marijuana users do not need to go to a drug court, he acknowledged that for those who over-rely on the drug, these courts “can help provide treatment and other benefits that may not be available or affordable to many defendants.” He added, “When [drug courts] prevent conviction of a crime, that is quite desirable.”

The Federal Factor

However, despite nearly half of states legalizing medicinal or recreational pot use, the most impactful target is still a federal one that could trump state prohibition, and things don’t look too good on that front for pro-cannabis activists.

In February 2013, Colorado Congressman Jared Polis introduced House Resolution 499, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and grant the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate cannabis like it regulates alcohol. Aside from its introduction, the bill didn’t go very far. Last month, the White House’s drug policy wing released its 2014 National Drug Control Strategy, which stays the course on federal marijuana policy and still lists pot as a schedule 1 substance that has no medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.

According to Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, that contradicts a remark President Barack Obama made to the New Yorker in a January interview when the president said marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol. “President Obama finally acknowledged the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, yet his administration is going to maintain a policy of punishing adults who make a safer choice,” Tvert said in a July statement. “Most Americans think marijuana should be made legal, and even the Justice Department has acknowledged that regulating marijuana could be a better approach than prohibition. Legalizing and regulating marijuana is not a panacea, but it is sound policy.”

Until then, Duran said she’ll keep spreading the message of medical marijuana and the positive impacts legalizing cannabis could have. As for Fazio, her sights are set on the state legislature and making sure Texas isn’t the last state in the U.S. to legalize pot.  

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