(This column by Gritpost.com co-publisher Carl Gibson originally appeared in the Sunday, February 11 edition of the Houston Chronicle.)
With so many strong candidates vying to unseat incumbent Republicans in the Legislature, Texas Democrats have a wind at their backs this election season that they haven’t felt in decades. What they don’t have at this point is a unifying message to fully unfurl their sails. They should try embracing legal marijuana as a cornerstone campaign issue.
Texas’ current pot laws are medieval and arguably the most severe in the country. Possession of anything less than two ounces – even just a gram – is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and as much as $2,000 in fines. This is a costly burden on taxpayers, with the American Civil Liberties Union estimating that the entire booking process, from arrest to incarceration, for marijuana possession cases alone cost taxpayers more than $250 million in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, the tens of thousands of marijuana possession arrests Texas makes every year (with 74,000 arrested for possession in 2010) disproportionately impact black and brown people, despite whites having similar levels of use. A 2011 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that whites have higher rates of use for cocaine, hallucinogens, marijuana, painkillers and methamphetamine than African Americans. However, according to a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch, black people are roughly four times more likely to go to jail than white people for drug possession. If Democrats campaign on legalizing marijuana, millions of voters in predominantly black and Hispanic precincts will be more motivated to vote for them.
With all 150 House seats up for re-election this year and 15 of 30 state Senate seats up for grabs, Texans of color will likely play a decisive role in who ends up controlling the Texas Legislature when next year’s biennial budget is written. As political polling site FiveThirtyEight pointed out in 2014, 40 percent of Texas’ voting precincts are in areas where whites are not the majority demographic. In 2012, these precincts went for Obama over Romney by an astounding 66 to 33 margin. Given that high minority-voter turnout made it possible to elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in deep-red Alabama for the first time in decades, it isn’t far-fetched to say the same thing could happen for Texas Democrats running for state House and Senate seats this year.
But marijuana legalization isn’t just a niche issue for people of color – in fact, most Texans actually support legalizing at least small amounts of marijuana. A poll conducted last year by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune found that support for legalizing marijuana grew significantly between February 2015 and February 2017. Eighty-three percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana for medical use at the very least, and 53 percent of Texans support legalizing at least small amounts for recreational purposes – and that goes for both Democrats and Republicans. In 2015, only 42 percent of respondents supported legalizing small amounts of marijuana. The trend shows Texans’ support for legalization will only increase over time.
While full legalization for recreational use might sound frightening to those who have lived with Texas’ pot laws for a long time, Texas wouldn’t be venturing out blindly into the wilderness. Multiple states, both red and blue, have legalized marijuana and are already seeing tangible benefits. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana. By 2016, both states ranked among the top five highest-performing state economies, with Washington state in the No. 2 spot and Colorado in the No. 5 spot (Texas ranked ninth).
Colorado has garnered more than $200 million in tax dollars from more than $1 billion in legal marijuana sales as of last year – funding that will bolster public school budgets. That number is expected to increase, with market research predicting legal pot will top $20.2 billion by 2021. In 2015, Colorado’s legal pot sector created 15,000 new jobs, and generated $2.4 billion in economic activity by itself. Texas’ population of 27.8 million is more than five times larger than that of Colorado’s 5.5 million, so economic output from legal marijuana in the Lone Star State would likely be that much higher.
The actual policy can be hashed out (pun intended) in the Legislature next year, and lawmakers could even put marijuana legalization up for a vote via constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. However they choose to do so, legal weed is Democrats’ key to winning – all they have to do is unite behind it.