Neither of the top candidates for governor of Texas wants to keep jailing people for possession of marijuana. Reefer madness has been replaced by reefer indifference.
The shift at the top level of politics reflects a shift in public opinion — politicians are nothing if not sensitive to voter sentiment — and a change in popular culture that has turned the proverbial “gateway drug” into one that’s legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia and has decriminalized in several more.
Texas isn’t on that list of states, at least not yet. While public policy hasn’t shifted much, public opinion has.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in May 2010 found that most Texas voters either didn’t think marijuana should ever be legal (27%) or that it should be legal only for medical purposes (27%). Only 42% said possession should be legal in small (28%) or large amounts (14%).
A UT/TT survey in June 2021 found that, asked when marijuana should be legal, 13% said never and 27% said only for medical use — a total of 40%. The majority — 60% — said possession of small (31%) or large (29%) amounts ought to be allowed.
While other states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, the Texas Legislature hasn’t been ready to jump, in part because 18% of Republicans think pot should never be legal and another 39% think only medical use should be allowed. But that poll also found that 69% of Texas voters — including strong majorities in both parties — supported lowering penalties for marijuana possession.
Austin voters will have a chance in May to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, putting into law what is already standard police practice in the capital city. The same group backing that initiative, Ground Game Texas, is trying to get similar propositions on the ballot in Killeen and Harker Heights in Central Texas.
And some of the candidates, while not making marijuana a central part of their campaigns, are talking about it.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who’s 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’s been at this for a while, through his previous political campaigns. One of his congressional opponents, then-U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, called him out in a 2012 TV commercial: “Say no to drugs. Say no to Beto.” O’Rourke, who didn’t make a big deal of pot policy in that race, won despite the attack.
Abbott hasn’t signed off on changes in the law, but he’s not a hard-liner on the subject. He said before the 2018 election that he was open to lowering penalties for possession. Asked about it at a recent campaign event, he said he believes “prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others, and small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.”
Abbott’s comments echoed his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Perry, who suggested decriminalization of marijuana in a 2014 interview with Jimmy Kimmel at SXSW in Austin. “You don’t want to ruin a kid’s life for having a joint.”
A few years before that, in 2011, his position was that the states ought to decide. “I totally and completely disagree with the concept of legalizing marijuana, but it ought to be California’s decision,” Perry said.
And he made a similar argument about legalizing same-sex marriage, which wasn’t legal in Texas and other states, but was winning increasing acceptance from the public. A few years later, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize and license same-sex marriages. But at the time, Perry said states should decide.
“If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, 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 U.S. Marijuana is still up to the states, though it remains illegal under federal law. And in Texas, possession is still against the law — if the local police enforce it.