Getting Riled up in Texas: Legalization Advocates Target State Races

No matter how quiet things seem to be, advocates have their eyes set on statewide ballots next year, including California, but there is another large state where reform has not yet blossomed and it refuses to sit this one out.

“The Texas Primary election is underway and candidates are seeking voter support,” explained Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy and a long-time advocate based in the state. Fazio is also instrumental in driving such activity on the ground. “State lawmakers considered several marijuana policy reform proposals this year, and they will again next session,” she said. “In Texas, most electoral decisions are made during the primary election [March 1]. It is critical that voters voice their opinions on this important topic now so candidates know where they stand.”

Texas is considered another “jewel” in the legalization crown for several reasons. Not only is marijuana possession for any reason still criminalized, but the state is directly in the path of cartel traffic via Mexico.

Voter sentiment has also moved dramatically in Texas over the past several years. According to statewide poll released at the beginning of October by the Texas Lyceum, three out of four voters support reforming the state’s current marijuana laws. Just under 75 percent of those surveyed think marijuana should either be legal or that possession should be decriminalized, and 57 percent of those who oppose making it legal think it should at least be decriminalized.

Yet unlike many other states who have forced reform past state legislatures at the ballot box, Texas is a state like Vermont where citizens cannot put ballot initiatives in front of voters, much less change the state constitution to force legalization. As a result, like Vermont, legalization advocates here must focus their attention on a more “old-fashioned” tactic—forcing both incumbent and challenging state office holders to swear fidelity to reform.

Unlike Vermont, however, whose legislature is clearly moving in this direction, Texas is still going to be a lot of work. That said, state advocates are clearly up for the task, with training and advocacy field organization already well underway for 2016.

According to Shaun McAlister, the Executive Director of Dallas-Fort Worth NORML, “After the sheer amount of attention on marijuana law reform from the media and Texas citizens during the 2015 legislative session, candidates intent on retaining their office or even new candidates running for the first time had better start taking courageous or at least sensible positions on this topic. Or they will sure to be disappointed come election time.”

The needle of reform has surely moved dramatically when the majority of voters in even the Lone Star State are calling for change. “Cannabis, especially medical cannabis, is an important topic to Texans and it’s no longer enough for our lawmakers to scoff, condescend or rebuff our demands with reefer madness,” McAllister said. “The prohibition of this non-toxic, therapeutic herb has done enough harm to our communities. It’s high time we put prohibition out to pasture in this country.”

Those already in office are absolutely getting the message. “Comprehensive marijuana reform saw tremendous progress this legislative session largely because families and regular Texans shared their stories with lawmakers,” state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, told Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “The movement to change our antiquated and dangerous prohibition laws is gaining traction. However, that momentum will be lost unless citizens stay engaged with their lawmakers during the interim and campaign season.”

“Our goal is to provide local activists with the tools they need to make marijuana policy part of the debate leading up to next year’s elections,” Fazio said. “Voters deserve to know which candidates want to maintain Texas’s failed marijuana prohibition policies and which ones want to take a new approach.”

And lawmakers know that this is the time to rethink the issue, particularly with a populace sick of the drug war. “That’s why these advocacy training events are so important because citizens will be the catalyst for change,” Menéndez said. “Poll after poll shows Texans are ready for comprehensive marijuana reform.”

As Fazio concluded, “We’ve worked to build a broad coalition of organizations that span the political spectrum. Our diversity and dedication set us apart from past efforts in the Lone Star State. Now, more than ever, Texans are ready for reform and we’re prepared to work for it.”

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