The election for the next Texas governor is gaining speed leading into the March 1 primaries, and the future of cannabis in the state is in the spotlight. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram conducted a survey looking at candidates’ views on legalization, revealing that access to pot might not be in the too distant future for the Lone Star state.
Every one of the candidates, save for two long-shot Republican challengers, said they wanted a change when it came to Texas’ cannabis policies. Despite the state’s conservative history (Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to a state-level political position since 1994), it’s not a controversial take: A 2021 poll found that 67 percent of residents favor adult-use cannabis legalization.
Two-term incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott is widely favored to win in the November governor’s elections, but he faces a nationally-known opponent: Beto O’Rourke.
The race shows signs that it could get closer. An early February poll by The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler found that Abbott’s lead in popularity among voters over O’Rourke has shrunk to seven percent.
In the Star-Telegram, Abbott expressed concerns about “abuses” within the frameworks of many states’ legal cannabis laws. He also waved a political carrot: “One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who were convicted with possession of small amounts of marijuana,” he said, offering the possibility of working with the state legislature to reduce small-scale possession offenses from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor.
Other Republican candidates alternated between sole support for medicinal marijuana (Don Huffines and Chad Prather, to be specific) and full adult-use legalization (candidates Paul Belew, Danny Harrison, and Kandy Kaye Horn). Some cited potential tax dollars for the state as a benefit and others took the opportunity to link patients’ rights to medicinal marijuana to over-reaching pandemic health guidelines (“I believe in an individual’s right to make medical decisions for themselves with the help of their doctor,” said Huffines. “If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything it is that government control of medicine is very dangerous.”)
The Texas Republican Party has had marijuana decriminalization on its platform since 2018.
O’Rourke’s comments reflected the general views of Democratic candidates, issuing a full-throated endorsement of adult-use legalization that cited “vast racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system,” and potential for state revenue. Candidate Joy Díaz added the importance of medicinal cannabis for Texans: “We now understand addiction and marijuana to be two different things.”
As the debate rages within the primary candidates, Texan municipalities are taking their own steps towards shifting cannabis policy. In Austin, there is a proposed ballot measure that would write into law many measures that are already being practiced by the police department, such as not ticketing for low-level pot possession.
In the city of San Marcos — located between Austin and San Antonio — Mano Amiga, an immigration and criminal justice system activist group, is looking to reduce criminal penalties of cannabis possession-related offenses. Signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in San Marcos will be needed for their measure to make it onto the November ballot. Last year, it was announced that San Marcos will be the site of a 60,000 square foot campus for medicinal marijuana companies.
Last November, Mano Amiga activist Jordan Buckley told the Austin America-Statesman, “Low-level marijuana possession continues to be the leading arrest charge in Hays County, according to county data.”
A ballot measure campaign in the city of Denton is also underway that would eliminate citations and arrests for misdemeanor cannabis possession, if approved by voters.