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Texas Republicans Are in a War Over Weed

Delegates at the state GOP convention haggled last week over whether to include support for medical marijuana in the party platform.
June 9, 2014, 4:57pm

Republicans in Texas battled over whether to support medical marijuana at the state GOP convention this past weekend. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Texas conservatives descended on Fort Worth last week for the state Republican Party convention, a biannual political summit cum gun show where more than 10,000 of the country’s most blood-red activists come together to mingle and celebrate state sovereignty and all things Ted Cruz. While Republicans in other parts of the country have spent the past few months in pitched battle on just how far right the party should tilt, in Texas there is no such debate. As last week’s Republican primaries demonstrated, the Tea Party has already won the Lone Star State. The party platform, which delegates passed on Saturday, reads like a far-right manifesto, running down a laundry list of all the things Texas Republicans should hate—Obamacare, the EPA, Agenda 21, red-light cameras, the 17th Amendment—and a few things they like, namely homeschooling and gay-conversion therapy.

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But there is at least one issue that divided Republicans at the Fort Worth Convention Center: weed. Behind the scenes, delegates on the party’s platform committees haggled last week over whether to include draft language laying out the state GOP’s position on medical marijuana. And on Saturday, the issue set off a floor fight that pitted the party’s more libertarian wing against the hard-line social conservatives that have long dominated Texas politics.

The debate started on Wednesday when, for the first time ever, the party’s platform committee passed an amendment declaring that “Texans should have legal access to cannabis as a controlled narcotic prescribed by a physician.” But on Thursday night, as delegates finalized the platform language, the amendment was removed, replaced with softer language in favor of medica marijuana research. Predictably, the change didn’t satisfy anyone, and both supporters and opponents brought the issue to the convention floor on Saturday, giving all of the party’s delegates an opportunity to weigh in on prohibition.

Ultimately, the opponents of medical marijuana won, and the party voted to strike the medical marijuana research plank from the party platform, although they did vote to include an amendment supporting the legalization of hemp products. “We got the information out there, and we got some good feedback, especially on the research side,” said Zoe Russell, the assistant director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, a Texas-based advocacy group that led the push for the legalization amendment. “For the next go around, we’ll be more prepared to have better language, more specific language, that clarifies the ways that people use medical cannabis.”

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Despite the loss, though, medical marijuana activists are heartened that the party is even considering a rethink on the issue, pointing to it as another sign of the seismic shift in the country’s attitudes toward weed. Medical marijuana is now legal in 22 states, and at least three other states are currently considering measures. And late last month, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan amendment that would ban the DEA from using any federal funding to circumvent state medical marijuana laws.

“The fact that Republicans are having the discussion about medical marijuana is tremendous progress,” said Heather Fazio, the Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Traditionally, they are known for shutting down any conversation on the topic.”

“After all,” she added, “prohibition is a big government idea which flies in the face of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and limited government. The point that seems to be particularly hitting home for many Republicans is that this is a health-freedom issue.”

Fazio and other legalization advocates concede that medical marijuana probably won’t be legal in Texas anytime soon. Most states that have passed marijuana legalization laws have done so by ballot initiatives, which Texas does not allow. That means that any loosening of prohibition will have to go through the state legislature, which tends to be dominated by hard-line conservatives.

“I think decriminalization is definitely going to be the first step,” said Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Legalization, though, would be admitting that the use of marijuana has no downside, and I don’t think the conservative movement has gotten there yet.”

Still, there are signs that resistance to legalization is softening in Texas, even among Republicans. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that 61 percent of Texas voters, including 55 percent of Republicans, support decriminalization measures that would make it a civil, rather than a criminal, offense to possess an ounce or less of marijuana—a move that Texas's Republican governor, Rick Perry, has said he supports. More surprisingly, the PPP survey found that 58 percent of Texans, including 48 percent of registered Republicans, support legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use.

“Texas Republicans are a unique breed: conservative, Christian, and fiercely independent,” said Vincent Harris, a digital media consultant who helped engineer Ted Cruz’s upset victory in the 2010 Senate race. “The active libertarian streak is bringing the party closer to support of marijuana legalization.” But, Harris added, “I don't believe if legalization had been on the primary ballot that it would have passed.”