Even if Texas is still solidly a red state, it’s now seen as a prized battleground state by Democrats, and that means Republicans have to respond with the weight of their campaign machine, making it a state to watch in the 2022 midterms and the 2024 general election.
As the state’s demographics continue to evolve, lawmakers in both parties are trying to capture the attention of new voters. While marijuana legalization is now embraced by most Texas Democrats, Republicans — especially those sent to represent Texas in the nation’s capital — continue to resist normalizing the plant. That’s confounding advocates.
Just last month 64% of Texans reported they favor regulating marijuana like alcohol. Still, everyday Texans don’t have the power to bring questions like this directly before voters via referendums. That’s why cannabis is now a big player in the battle over the hearts and minds of Texas voters.
The funny thing is it’s not necessarily a partisan issue. Legalization is popular and resonates with voters of all stripes.
“It does. It has for a long time actually,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told The News Station last month as she walked across the Capitol grounds. “So there’s a lot of interest in my district.”
That’s a change for her sprawling, conservative, if Democratic, district.
“I do think it’s a winning issue.Rep. Veronica Escobar (D)
“Yes, it is. I feel like this is one of those movements that was long in coming but that advanced fairly quickly in a short period of time,” Escobar said.
Escobar’s district, which encompasses El Paso, where she served as a district judge, isn’t all pro-legalization.
“Now, I will tell you, the opposition that still exists is very, very strong, because I come from a district where there’s a lot of law enforcement — federal and local — and, you know there was a real resistance for a long time [to medicinal marijuana],” Escobar said. “I think slowly but surely we’re getting there.”
New, younger lawmakers like Escobar wonder why there’s even a debate anymore, because they’ve seen the enthusiasm over marijuana from all sectors.
“I do think it’s a winning issue. I do,” Escobar said. “And I do think it’s directly linked with racial justice and criminal justice issues, and I think that’s why it’s become more popular — or more accepted — in my district among certain groups.”
It’s a different story for Texas Republicans, though.
…they wanted a criminal justice agenda, but that involves marijuana legalization?”Sen. John Cornyn (R)
As Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) walked through the Capitol at the start of this new Congress, The News Station asked the former number two Senate Republican about the Democratic majority’s promise to address marijuana reform as a part of its criminal justice agenda. But the link between marijuana prohibition and the nation’s mass incarceration epidemic was lost on the elder of the Senate GOP.
“I thought you said they wanted a criminal justice agenda, but that involves marijuana legalization?” Cornyn — who remains one of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s top lieutenants — said through an extended laugh.
Still, that doesn’t mean Cornyn and other Republicans from traditional conservative strongholds like Texas are writing off marijuana altogether this session.
“I think we can look at what they got to offer, but I don’t think we’re going to be interested in going as far as they want to go,” Cornyn said.
Even with proxy — or remote — voting in place because of coronavirus, four Texas Republicans didn’t even bother voting on the MORE Act (Reps. Michael Burgess, John Carter, Kenny Marchant and Ron Wright (who recently died from from coronavirus). One conservative Texas Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, was one of just six Democrats nationwide to oppose the measure.
The specter of the war on ‘drugs’ still hangs over many of the state’s elected officials, which is why Cornyn speaks for many when he calls for studies — the same studies he and other GOP leaders refused to allow when they controlled the majority the past six years.
“I think before we do anything radical, we need to look at the public health consequences,” Cornyn told The News Station.
Why is National GOP Scared?
Recreational marijuana is now legal in 15 states, the District of Columbia, on many tribal lands and in some US territories, while medical marijuana is legal in more than half of the nation. With the states and local voters steadily unwinding their statutes that banned marijuana, many federal lawmakers, especially on the right, have basically washed their hands of the issue, and Texas politicians are no different.
“I think that’s an issue that should be decided by the states. Under our Constitution, states have wide latitude,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told The News Station on his way to a vote in the Capitol earlier this month.
Cruz, who is rumored to be eyeing another White House bid in 2024, isn’t a dogmatic opponent of cannabis, though. At least not in public.
“I think it’s an issue in which reasonable people can disagree, and so each state should adopt laws that reflect the values of their citizens,” Cruz said.
“With so many states having moved and now out of touch now with federal law, is this something Congress should address?” The News Station asked.
“I’m sure there’ll be continued debates,” Cruz replied as the doors of the Senator’s Only elevator in the Capitol shut on The News Station.
Two years ago — when legislators met last in Austin — the Texas House passed a marijuana decriminalization bill, but it went down in the Senate.
But two years is ages in contemporary cannabis policy. Just in November voters in Montana and South Dakota overwhelmingly legalized recreational marijuana, and Mississippi voters passed a medicinal cannabis program over the protests of their state leaders (who are challenging it in court).
Even before the Lone Star legislature kicked off this year, close to two dozen marijuana focused bills were prefiled in Austin. While that number includes long shot recreational cannabis measures that are unlikely to pass, it also includes bills like one to expand the state’s extremely limited medical program, or Texas Compassionate Use Program (T.CUP).
Last session Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the legislature expanded the state’s medicinal program from just those with epilepsy to people with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. But some lawmakers want it expanded even further. State Sen. Jose Menendez (D) prefiled a bill to expand the list of illnesses that make one eligible for the state’s medical marijuana program, while also lifting the current 0.5% THC cap in the state.
Democrats in DC Double Down
Back in Washington, Democrats are in the majority and vowing to make marijuana a priority. But they first have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession that’s stemmed from it, not to mention how Democrats’ new year agenda got derailed by the Capitol riot and impeachment. Most Democrats say the two go hand in hand.
“As much as there’s a lot of important legislating that needs to be done, I think my biggest concerns have been shoring up our democracy and making sure that we’re able to function and answer questions like how we’re going to handle, you know, responsible cannabis policy,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) told The News Station walking underneath the Capitol recently. “I think it’s pretty clear, though, that something has to change.”
The former NFL player represents a mostly suburban district that starts in north Dallas and stretches and winds east. He says marijuana came up, pre-pandemic, at least.
“Obviously there’s some constituency that’s really interested in it,” Allred said.
Allred won his seat in 2018. That was the year former Rep. Beto O’Rourke challenged Cruz in a knock-down, drag-out Senate race. Cruz won, but the young, Democratic congressman excited young voters, in part, by running to legalize marijuana and expunge the past criminal records of people locked up under the war on ‘drugs.’
“I think Beto’s campaign reflected where Texas is. I just think that Texas is a big, diverse state, a disproportionately young state,” Allred said. “I think these views are changing and need to be reflected in our policy, too.”
For Allred and his party, marijuana policy and criminal justice reform are now top agenda items.
“Certainly,” Allred told The News Station. “I don’t think this is an issue at all among young people of either party.”
In fact, on the ground in Texas, the most pressing issues around marijuana aren’t necessarily partisan like they are in Washington, at least according to advocates.
“There’s kind of the standard situation where politicians and the legislature kind of maybe lagged behind public polling because they want to ensure that it’s not going to affect their electability,” Jax Finkel, the executive director of the marijuana advocacy group NORML Texas, told The News Station. “We’ve shown over the last several sessions here, as we created a very limited medical program…that in fact, you will continue to get elected. And we’ve got a lot of people on the record voting ‘yes.’”
And thus far, most Texas legislators have dealt with these issues more seriously than national Republicans.
“This isn’t about party lines.”Jax Finkel, NORML Texas
“Fortunately for us, it’s been a bipartisan effort for what we’ve accomplished so far. And I hope that we can continue to have it bipartisan and not see some of that divisiveness that we see on other topics, and quite honestly, in DC, quite often,” Finkel said in a phone interview from where she’s been without electricity for three days. “This isn’t about party lines. It’s about not only what’s best for Texans’ well-being and the social structure and for the economy here, but also what’s right for the patients having proper access.”
This session advocates are hoping to expand the state’s medical marijuana program to enable veterans to access it and so people with ailments like chronic pain can get the cannabis their doctors want them to have.
“There’s a lot of legislators working on good quality legislation, and, believe it or not, there’s a really strong feeling of medical freedom and letting doctors decide who could benefit, let doctors decide, you know, what is the formulation and the dosage that that patient should have for their condition,” Finkel said.
That’s why Texas is once again a state to keep an eye on, only this time over a substance that can still land a person in rural portions of the state in prison for life.
“If they approve of states’ rights and they want states to be able to protect the programs that they’re doing,” Finkel said, “then they need to move forward on some of this legislation.”