Governor Greg Abbott’s openness to decriminalizing marijuana shows that the state, while conservative, is not immune to broader trends.
None of Texas’ top gubernatorial candidates want to continue jailing people for possession of marijuana. Reefer madness has been replaced by reefer indifference.
The shift at the highest level of politics reflects a shift in public opinion – politicians are nothing if not responsive to voter sentiment – and a shift in popular culture that has transformed the proverbial “gateway drug” into one that is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia and has been decriminalized in several others.
Texas is not on this list of states, at least not yet. While public policy hasn’t changed much, public opinion has.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in May 2010 found that most Texas voters either don’t think marijuana should ever be legal (27%) or that it should only be legal for medical use (27%). Only 42% said possession should be legal in small (28%) or large amounts (14%).
A UT/TT survey in June 2021 found that when asked when marijuana should be legal, 13% said never and 27% said only for medical purposes – a total of 40%. The majority – 60% – said possession of small (31%) or large amounts (29%) should be allowed.
While other states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, the Texas legislature wasn’t ready to take the plunge, in part because 18% of Republicans think pot should never be legal and 39% think only medical use should be allowed. But that poll also found that 69% of Texas voters — including strong majorities in both parties — favored reducing penalties for marijuana possession.
Austin voters will have the opportunity in May to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, enshrining in law what is already common police practice in the capital. The same group supporting this initiative, Ground Game Texas, is trying to pass similar proposals in Killeen and Harker Heights in central Texas.
And some of the candidates, even if they don’t make marijuana a central part of their campaigns, are talking about it.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is running for his party’s nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, wants to legalize pot in Texas and has made it a regular line in his stump speeches. He has been there for some time, during his previous political campaigns. One of his opponents in Congress, then US Representative Silvestre Reyes, called out to him in a 2012 television commercial: “Say no to drugs. Say no to Beto. O’Rourke, who didn’t make much of pot politics in this race, won despite the attack.
Abbott did not approve of the changes to the law, but he is not a hardliner on the subject. He said ahead of the 2018 election that he was open to reduced penalties for possession. Asked about it at a recent campaign event, he said he thinks “jail and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who can harm others, and petty possession of marijuana is not the kind of violation we want to stock the prisons with.”
Abbott’s comments echoed his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Perry, who suggested decriminalizing marijuana in a 2014 interview with Jimmy Kimmel at SXSW in Austin. “You don’t want to ruin a child’s life for a joint.”
A few years earlier, in 2011, his position was that the states should decide. “I totally and completely disagree with the concept of legalizing marijuana, but that should be California’s decision,” Perry said.
And he made a similar argument about legalizing same-sex marriage, which was not legal in Texas and other states but was gaining more and more public acceptance. A few years later, in 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize and allow same-sex marriages. But at the time, Perry said the states should decide.
“If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens with guns, don’t come to Texas,” Perry said. “If you don’t like medical marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.”
Same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in the United States. Marijuana still falls under state jurisdiction, although it remains illegal under federal law. And in Texas, possession is still illegal – if the local police enforce it.
Ross Ramsey is editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune. Before joining the Tribune, he was editor and co-owner of the Texas Weekly for 15 years. It can be emailed to [email protected]