Kentucky Democratic Leaders Say Medical Marijuana Legalization Will Be Top 2022 Legislative Priority

While the legislature has been hesitant to embrace cannabis reform, advocates hope O’Rourke’s attention to the issue will give it a political boost.

By James PollardThe Texas Tribune

A crowd at a rally in downtown Austin Beto O’Rourke ticked off his usual laundry list of campaign promises: stabilizing the power grid, rolling back the state’s new permitless carry law and expanding health care access.

The El Paso Democrat received the loudest cheers when he pledged to legalize marijuana in Texas. “most of us, regardless of party, actually agree on.”

“I’ve been warned that this may or may not be a popular thing to say in Austin, Texas,” O’Rourke said to the crowd gathered in Republic Square Park in December. “But when I am governor, we are going to legalize marijuana.”

The support is not new to the gubernatorial hopeful. O’Rourke has championed legalization efforts throughout his political career, ever since his time as a member of the El Paso city council. He also supported the policy in his unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Senate, and for president.

But in his early run for governor, O’Rourke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has repeatedly mentioned legalizing marijuana on the campaign trail across Texas. Advocates hope that increased attention will propel legalization efforts in Texas, which has the highest marijuana possession penalties and arrest rates.

O’Rourke’s advocacy around the issue dates back at least to his time on the El Paso City Council in 2009 when he pushed for a resolution calling on Congress to have “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition”Use of marijuana.

The non-binding measure was approved unanimously by the city council. But, John Cook, then-Mayor of New York, vetoed it. Cook was assisted by Silvestre Reyes (the former U.S. Representative), who warned councilmembers that the city could lose federal funding if they continued their effort.

O’Rourke went on to challenge and defeat Reyes in the 2012 Democratic primary for his congressional seat. Reyes issued an interview during that race. ad attacking O’Rourke’s positionInformation about marijuana legalization

“Legalizing drugs is not the answer. Even our children understand that,”A narrator said this in a video that featured children shaking their heads. “Say NO to Drugs. Say NO to Beto.”

While O’Rourke did not campaign on the policy throughout that race, advocates at the time pointed to his victory as a sign of the changing attitudes around marijuana legalization.

O’Rourke’s viewpoint is influenced by his hometown of El Paso, which he writes about extensively in his 2011 book “Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico,”co-written by Susie Byrd (a City Council member).

For 15 years before 2008, there was an average of 236 murders per year in Ciudad Juárez, the sister city of El Paso, O’Rourke wrote. The number rose to 317 in 2007, and then soared to 1,623 in 2008. There was a “pernicious influence,” O’Rourke wrote: the “multibillion dollar hemispheric vice between supply and demand,”Where “North America consumes illegal drugs” “Mexico supplies them.”

The book shows that there is a correlation between the number of murders and government crackdowns on illicit trade. By regulating, controlling and taxing the marijuana market, O’Rourke and Byrd posit the U.S. could save lives. The authors recommend that sales be restricted to adults and that licenses be issued to regulate, limit smoking to non-public areas, and that advertisers not appeal to children.

Once in Congress, O’Rourke continued efforts to roll back federal marijuana regulations—to no avail.

He was a 2017 he Introduced a bill repealing a rule that prevented federal funds from going to states that don’t enforce a law revoking or suspending drivers’ licenses over drug offense convictions. He supported Numerous failed AttemptsTo protect the states that have legalized the drug against federal intrusion. O’Rourke sought to Courts may be required to seal recordsNonviolent offenses involving marijuana He Co-sponsored a billIt would allow students convicted in marijuana possession to keep their eligibility for federal aid. He supported several other measures. Increase ResearchIn to Expand The AvailableMedical cannabis Particularly For Veterans.

None of these bills became law.

If O’Rourke becomes governor, his plans to legalize marijuana would face another set of hurdles in the form of the Texas Legislature, particularly Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is the leader of the state Senate.

After the House approved in April 2019, a bill would have been submitted for preliminary approval. Criminal penalties reducedPatrick declared the measure ineffective for Texans who possess small amounts of marijuana.

There’s been some momentum for more progressive marijuana policies within Patrick’s party in recent sessions. State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth and state Sen. Donna CampbellSenator Byron Riegel, R-New Braunfels, introduced bills to relax restrictions on medical cannabis access. Both of these reforms were rejected by the legislature. But Gov. Greg AbbottIn May did sign a watered-down expansion of Texas’ medical marijuana programTo include people with cancer or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patrick did not comment on the story. In a Previous statementAccording to The Texas Tribune, a Patrick spokesperson stated that the lieutenant governor was “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

Abbott didn’t answer questions on his position regarding marijuana legalization.

Legalization advocates hope O’Rourke’s candidacy can move opinions among state leaders on relaxing marijuana restrictions.

“Hopefully with Beto O’Rourke presumably being the Democratic nominee, we can push the other candidates in the race to talk about this issue more, to come to the table and have a conversation about how these policies are having negative impacts on our state,”Heather Fazio, director at Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said the following:

Some states support legalizing marijuana. According to a June 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll60% of Texas voters believe that at least a small amount should be legal. This includes 73 per cent of Democrats, 74 per cent of independents, and 43 percent for Republicans.

Mike Siegel is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ground Game Texas. This nonprofit supports progressive policies in Texas. “workers, wages, and weed,” said the issue is an opportunity for O’Rourke to reach independent or nonaligned voters.

“[Marijuana policy] is a major opportunity for [O’Rourke] to reach out to middle of the road, independent or nonaligned voters and even some Republican voters,” Siegel said. “A governor’s race that’s high-profile like the one that is coming up, where it could be Beto O’Rourke versus Greg Abbott, that’s the best opportunity to push these populist wedge issues.”

But Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said marijuana legalization isn’t a “terribly important issue”It is not enough to win over voters. He said that the political salience of the policy depends on the issues it addresses, whether they are the economy, criminal justice system, or health care.

Legalization advocates tie the issue to racial injustice. In his 2011 book, O’Rourke linked the drug’s prohibition in the early 20th century to racist fears of Mexican immigrants. Advocates today highlight the racial disparities in existing law’s enforcement. An analysis by the Texas Department of Justice found that black Texans are 2.6x as likely to be arrested in relation to marijuana possession than their white counterparts. ACLU report April 2020. According to the report, Texas had 41st highest marijuana possession arrests nationwide in 2018.

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who served as political director on O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign, said the tide is turning on policies relating to cannabis enforcement. House Speaker, for example. Dade PhelanR-Beaumont, was the co-author of 2019 BillThat would have been a great idea. Reduced penalties for possessionBefore Patrick killed it.

“A Gov. O’Rourke would certainly turn that tide a lot quicker because of his position on these issues. But ultimately, to get something to the governor’s desk, you’ve got to get it through the Senate,”Moody stated. “Our focus has to be on changing hearts and minds in the Senate.”

Moody would be an expert on changing opinions. Now one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of reducing penalties for marijuana charges, he said he disagreed with O’Rourke’s position on marijuana a decade ago. Overhauling American drug policy wasn’t going to “flip the switch on violence,”He spoke about his feelings at that time. But he said he’s since grown “much more comfortable”Legalization is a concept. “a major piece of the puzzle.”

O’Rourke was “ahead of the curve”Moody stated that marijuana legalization was a good idea. This is something he said the public should ask their leaders.

For Moody, El Paso—which became The first U.S. municipality to outlaw marijuana usage in 1915—is the place to lead that charge.

“If you’re going to right the wrong, if you think this is a scourge on our system, and it began here, then let’s let it end here. Let’s lead the way to end it,”Moody stated. “That certainly is something that weighs heavily on my mind and on my shoulders when I work on this policy, and I imagine it’s the same for [O’Rourke].”

This article appeared originally in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported newsroom that is nonpartisan and informs and engages Texans about state politics. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. This non-partisan, non-partisan news organization is partially funded by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. You can find a complete list here Here.

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