Green state: Legalizing marijuana in Texas

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Haidar is a junior majoring in journalism.

Last February, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) made a spooky prediction at a GOP dinner in Houston, Texas: Texas will turn blue in the next decade if Republicans don’t find a way to change their party.

Texas maybe turning blue in the next 10 years, but what about turning green?

Working closely with the Marijuana Policy Project — a nonprofit dedicated to reforming marijuana laws in the U.S. — Texas legislators and ordinary citizens are working toward the goal of legalizing medical marijuana and dropping penalties for possession.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) has filed HB 594 six times to no avail. Naishtat’s bill – which continues to get shot down at the state level — would allow for patients to receive medical marijuana as prescribed by a physician.

Dorothy Browne, Naishtat’s chief of staff, commented about the house member’s attempts to push the bill.

“Sometimes we get a hearing on it and then it’s not brought up for a vote in the committee so it dies,” Browne said. “We’re sort of heartened because the Marijuana Policy Project – they’re going to put some money in Texas this next time. They’ve retained a lobbyist for lack of a better word down here and that will be helpful because my boss does file a whole lot of bills on a whole lot of different subjects and if he had somebody on the ground here it helps.”

The Marijuana Policy Project has allied with Naishtat and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) to make Texas more green-friendly.

Dutton is working toward reducing the penalties for possession of an ounce or less
of marijuana.

As the law currently stands, possession of that amount is a class B misdemeanor. Dutton aims to drop that penalty to a class C – meaning that most Texans arrested for the crime wouldn’t face jail time.

In 2010, the ACLU reported that Texas had the second most total arrests for
marijuana possession.

Dutton, in an article with the Houston Press last year, mentioned that 30,000 of the 70,000 marijuana possession cases filed yearly are for two ounces or less.

Those arrested for smaller amounts tend to be first time offenders between the ages of 17 and 25, Dutton said. Dutton’s bill (HB 192) would save counties money processing and housing inmates.

That’s another green that matters in the U.S. — the greenback. Supporters of medical marijuana initiatives in Texas are increasingly turning to the financial argument to drum up support. Shaun McAlister, executive director with the DFW chapter of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML), works with businesses to spread the message of marijuana’s positive impact on tax revenues.

“It’s gonna make a lot of people who want to increase tax revenues salivate,”
McAlister said.

According to the Business Insider, Colorado expects to bring in approximately $98 million in tax revenues from recreational marijuana sales in the state by the end of the year. The article quotes Moody’s Investors Service as reporting that legal sales of marijuana in the state will both reduce the size of the black market and pump up state coffers.

When tax revenues go up, politicians (especially blue ones) are happy.

The Marijuana Policy Project played a key role in lobbying for the legalization of marijuana use in Colorado with its 2012 “Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.” Now the group is bringing its organizational abilities and legislative know-
how to Texas.

“In Texas, we have a lobbyist on retainer and will be hiring a staffer to oversee our legislative efforts there. We intend to work with local activists to promote several marijuana policy reform bills in the coming sessions, including a medical marijuana bill and a bill to remove the threat of jail for simple possession,” Marijuana Policy Project Communications Manager Morgan Fox said.

Fox said the Marijuana Policy Project was also working on a national level to lobby congress to pass bills that would keep federal agencies from interfering with dispensaries in legal states.

In 2016, the non-profit plans to run ballot initiatives to make recreational marijuana legal in Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada.

A poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project in February showed that 61 percent of Texan voters support reducing penalties for marijuana possession and 58 percent support access to medical marijuana.

Back with DFW NORML, McAlister runs informational campaigns to get supporters mobilized and sometimes shock Texans into paying attention. McAlister is currently planning to put up a billboard on I-20 featuring a giant marijuana leaf.

The billboard – which McAlister hopes will “generate a ton of conversation” – was the group’s largest single expenditure to date and the money for it was completely raised online in seven days.

Coming up on the annual NORML legal seminar in Aspen from May 29-31, McAlister aims to raise awareness locally – holding free two-hour-long seminars at the DFW office to train supporters on how to reach out to legislators.

“We vote. We pay taxes. We really are trying to influence these legislators,” McAlister said.

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