Legalization advocates are pinning their hopes to a new bill that would decriminalize marijuana in the Lone Star State.
Just before Christmas, Democratic Texas State Representative Joe Moody introduced a bill that would reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana from an arrestable offense carrying up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to a civil infraction with a much smaller fee of $100. The bill has enjoyed bipartisan support from both liberal and far-right organizations, and advocates behind HB 507 expect the bill to receive partisan support from Texas Democrats and a "liberty-minded" faction of Republicans. But to become law in the hyper-conservative state, reform must appeal to more conservative Republicans and, in particular, to their concerns with fiscal responsibility.
"What we've got to do with our legislation is pretty much tie it to two things," said Randal Kuykendall, a veteran lobbyist hired by Marijuana Policy Project to advocate for new legislation in Texas. The first, he said, is to "make sure legislators know that it's safe—that even if our measures go horribly wrong, chaos is not going to occur." The second is to reiterate "that there's an economic impact positive to state," said Kuykendall. "With the civil penalties bill, we're saving resources, time and effort for prosecutors, and allowing people that are non-violent with minor offenses back in the workplace."
Ninety-seven percent of marijuana arrests in Texas are for low-level possession, and in 2010, more than 78,000 people were arrested for marijuana in the state, with each lock-up costing taxpayers an estimated $10,000. "Republicans care about fiscal responsibility in Texas, and if we can save the taxpayers over 700 million in tax dollars per year, it makes them look good," said Max Davidson, director of operations for the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of NORML.
While marijuana policy reform has not historically enjoyed Republican support, Davidson said that Republicans are coming around to the idea of change, at least in private. He said he has spoken to 20 state Republicans who have said they will support some level of marijuana policy reform, several of them so conservative Davidson claimed that mentioning their names made a liberal Texas Democrat's jaw "hit the ground."
Ultimately, the umbrella group behind HB 507, Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, and Marijuana Policy Project, which has positioned itself as the local leader on the issue, aim to pass full marijuana legalization in Texas, and while HB 507 seeks to reduce penalties for marijuana, full legalization and medical marijuana proposals are also in the works.
Historically, though, far more Texas Republicans than Democrats have openly opposed marijuana policy reform, including access to medical marijuana and decriminalization. While Texas Democrats passed a resolution in 2012 endorsing the decriminalization and regulation of marijuana possession and sale, while the state GOP struck medical marijuana support from their party platform this year. Incoming Republican Governor Greg Abbott and several Republican state representatives are staunch defenders of the status quo, and are expected to maintain hard-lined positions against marijuana policy reform when the legislature meets again in January.
At the same time, though, there are Tea Party-style conservatives who have started using libertarian rhetoric to express support for marijuana policy reform.Legalization advocates have pinned their hopes to these right wingers, and other like-minded Republicans, like state representative Tan Parker, who chairs the typically conservative, House Corrections Committee and who has publicly come out in favor of reducing penalties for marijuana possession.
"Texas voters are there, and the reason has lot to do with how prohibition has so clearly failed," said Heather Fazio, the Texas political director for Marijuana Policy Project, the group behind HB 507, "It is also due to the emergence of the Liberty Movement in Texas and throughout the country—more liberty-minded Republicans getting to the roots of limited government."
Some Texas Republicans who openly support a change to marijuana laws seem to be vying for the political expedience popular support for marijuana policy reform may offer elected officials. Before the November midterms, for example, Harris County District Attorney Devin Anderson and her challenger, Democrat Kim Ogg, faced off over ownership of the idea to decriminalize marijuana. "This is not a new plan," Ogg told the Houston Chronicle of Anderson's proposal, "It's a 'me too' program by a candidate who has shifted her position with the winds of political change."
And despite some resistance to change among the state GOP, at least one Representative-elect, ultra-conservative Republican Tony Tinderholt (who "might be Texas' most far-right candidate, according to the Texas Observer) is considering support for marijuana policy reform. In a phone interview, Tinderholt said he was not prepared to formally state his position on HB 507 and other reforms, but expressed openness to new laws, under the strict condition that he can prove his constituents support the changes.
"I spent 10 years of a 21-year military career doing counternarcotics mission all over South and Central America, and I'll tell ya, I'm not convinced that the current policies at the national level are effective enough," Tinderholt told me. " I'm not quite sure at this point what I'd change, but I don't think that our current policies at the national level are truly effective—when you compare dollars spent versus the return on investment or change and impact."
"We've got 22 veterans a day that are killing themselves across the nation," he added, saying that "if [marijuana] has really true effects that are helpful and really make a difference in people's lives, we'd be crazy not to support something like that."
Like others, Tinderholt emphasized the importance of couching any attempts at reform in the language of fiscal conservatism. "Part of the decision making process, part of it, is gonna be is it fiscally responsible?" he said, "I think that will play a part in the decision making, and I think it'll play a part in how the people in my district view different pieces of legislation, particularly the decriminalization issue."
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