While the legislature has hesitated to pass cannabis reform, advocates hope O’Rourke’s attention to the issue will give him political momentum.
By James Pollard, The Texas Tribune
At a crowded rally in downtown Austin, Beto O’Rourke ticked off his usual list of campaign pledges: to stabilize the power grid, overturn the new state-unlicensed porterage law, and expand the access to health care.
But the El Paso Democrat received the loudest cheers of the night when he promised to legalize marijuana in Texas, whereupon he said “most of us, regardless of party, are actually agree “.
“I have been warned that this may or may not be a popular thing to say in Austin, Texas,” O’Rourke told the crowd gathered at Republic Square Park in December. “But when I’m governor, we’re going to legalize marijuana.”
Support is nothing new for the candidate for governor. O’Rourke has championed legalization efforts throughout his political career, since serving on El Paso City Council. He has also nodded at politics throughout his failed campaigns for the US Senate and for President.
But at the start of his gubernatorial candidacy, O’Rourke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, repeatedly mentioned the legalization of marijuana during the campaign trail across Texas. Advocates hope the increased attention will boost legalization efforts in a state with some of the toughest penalties and highest arrest rates for possession of marijuana.
O’Rourke’s advocacy around the issue dates back at least to his time on El Paso City Council in 2009, when he pushed for a resolution calling on Congress to have “an honest and open national debate on the issue. end of ban ”on marijuana.
Despite the unanimous passage of city council, then-mayor John Cook vetoed the non-binding measure. Cook got help from then-US Representative Silvestre Reyes, who warned council members the city could lose federal funds if they continued their efforts.
O’Rourke then challenged and defeated Reyes in the 2012 Democratic primary for his seat in Congress. During that run, Reyes posted an ad attacking O’Rourke’s position on the legalization of marijuana.
“Legalizing drugs is not the solution. Even our kids get it, ”said one narrator in a video campaign ad that showed children shaking their heads. “Say no to drugs. Say NO to Beto.
Although O’Rourke did not campaign on politics throughout this race, defenders at the time pointed to his victory as a sign of changing attitudes around the legalization of marijuana.
O’Rourke’s perspective is influenced by his hometown of El Paso, which he writes extensively about in his 2011 book “Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico,” co- written with City Council member Susie Byrd. .
For 15 years prior to 2008, there was an average of 236 murders per year in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s sister city, 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 uses illegal drugs” and “Mexico supplies them.”
The book correlates government crackdown on illicit trade with the number of murders. By regulating, controlling, and taxing the marijuana market, O’Rourke and Byrd postulate that the United States could save lives. The authors call for restricting sales to adults, providing licenses to help regulate, limiting smoking in non-public spaces, and banning advertisers from appealing to children.
Once in Congress, O’Rourke continued his efforts to overturn federal marijuana regulations, to no avail.
In 2017, he introduced a bill to repeal a rule that prevented federal funds from going to states that do not enforce a law revoking or suspending driver’s licenses if convicted of drug offenses. He supported several failed attempts to protect states that had legalized drugs from federal incursions. O’Rourke has sought to force courts to seal cases of non-violent offenses involving marijuana. He co-sponsored a bill that would allow students convicted of possession of marijuana to maintain their eligibility for federal aid. He has also supported various measures to increase research and expand the availability of medical cannabis, especially for veterans.
None of these bills became law.
If O’Rourke becomes governor, his plan to legalize marijuana would face another set of hurdles in the form of the Texas Legislature, especially Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who heads 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 has been some momentum for more progressive marijuana policies within Patrick’s party over the past few sessions. In 2019, State Representative Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and State Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced bills that would relax laws restricting access to medical cannabis. These two reforms were not adopted. But Gov. Greg Abbott signed a watered-down extension of Texas’ medical marijuana program in May to include people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Patrick has not commented on this story. In a previous statement to the Texas Tribune, a spokesperson for Patrick said the lieutenant governor was “strongly opposed to weakening the laws against marijuana. [and] remains suspicious of the various proposals for medicinal use that could become a vector for expanding access to this drug.
Abbott did not respond to questions about his position on the legalization of marijuana.
Advocates of legalization are hopeful that O’Rourke’s candidacy can shake up the views of heads of state on easing restrictions on marijuana.
“I hope that with Beto O’Rourke likely being the Democratic candidate, we can push the other candidates in the race to talk more about this issue, come to the table and discuss how these policies are having negative impacts on our state, ”said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.
There is broad support for the legalization of marijuana across the state. According to a June 2021 University of Texas / Texas Tribune poll, 60% of voters in Texas 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, co-founder of Ground Game Texas, a nonprofit focused on supporting progressive policies regarding “workers, wages and weeds,” said the issue is an opportunity for O’Rourke to ” reach out to independent or non-aligned voters.
“[Marijuana policy] is a major opportunity for [O’Rourke] to reach the middle of the road, independent or non-aligned voters and even some Republican voters, ”Siegel said. “A high-profile governor’s race like the one that’s coming up, where it could be Beto O’Rourke versus Greg Abbott, this is the best opportunity to push these issues out of the populist corner.”
But Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said the legalization of marijuana in and of itself is not a “terribly important issue” for voters. Its political importance depends on issues related to politics, he said, whether it be the economy, the criminal justice system or health care.
Supporters of legalization tie the issue to racial justice. In his 2011 book, O’Rourke linked the drug ban in the early 20th century to the racist fears of Mexican immigrants. Lawyers today point to racial disparities in the application of existing laws. Black Texans are 2.6 times more likely than White Texans to be arrested for possession of marijuana, according to an April 2020 ACLU report. In 2018, Texas recorded the total number of arrests for possession. highest marijuana plant in the country, according to the report, which found the state ranked 41st for the greatest racial disparities in those arrests.
State Representative Joe Moody D-El Paso, who served as political director of O’Rourke’s campaign in 2018, said the tide was turning around policies relating to the fight against cannabis. For example, House Speaker Dade Phelan R-Beaumont co-wrote the 2019 bill that would have reduced the penalties for possession before Patrick killed him.
“A Governor O’Rourke would certainly reverse this trend much faster because of his stance on these issues. But at the end of the day, to get something on the governor’s desk, you have to get it through the Senate, ”Moody said. “Our goal must be to change hearts and minds in the Senate. “
Moody would know something about the changes in opinion. Now one of the biggest supporters of reduced sentences for marijuana charges in the legislature, he has said he disagrees with O’Rourke’s position on marijuana there. is ten years old. The overhaul of US drug policy was not going to “flip the switch on violence,” he said of his feelings at the time. But he said he has since been “much more comfortable” with the idea that legalization is “a major piece of the puzzle”.
O’Rourke was “ahead” of legalizing marijuana, Moody said, a quality he added the public should look to their leaders for.
For Moody, El Paso, which became the first American city to ban the use of marijuana in 1915, is the perfect place to bring the charge.
“If you want to right the wrong, if you think it’s a plague on our system, and it started here, then let’s let it end here. Let’s lead the way to end it, ”Moody said. “It is certainly something that weighs heavily on my mind and shoulders when working on this policy, and I imagine the same is true for [O’Rourke]. “
This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.
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