Gubernatorial Hopefuls are Open to Messing With Texas’ Marijuana Penalties

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As historically conservative states such as Oklahoma and Utah seriously flirt with the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana, one can’t help but ask: Is Texas ready to legalize marijuana in 2019?

Probably not, but while the state may not legalize cannabis for adult-use in the 2018 election cycle, voters in Texas are changing their attitudes toward marijuana use.

Apparently, Texas’ head of state is one of them.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is running against former Dallas County Sheriff and Democratic candidate Lupe Valdez, revealed an out-of-character policy stance that could represent meaningful progress for marijuana reform. Hosted by Austin NBC affiliate KXAN-TV and its owner, Nexstar Media Group, the candidates debated at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, the state capital. During the hourlong debate, moderators from NBC’s Texas major TV market affiliates KXAN, Houston’s KPRC-TV, Dallas-Forth Worth’s KXAS, and San Antonio’s KSAT, and NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language Telemundo network asked the questions.

The candidates, during their sole debate Sept. 28, 2018, were confronted with probing questions. While the queries were typically political and ranged from arming teachers to increased border security, one question asked via Twitter covered a topic many politicians will encounter as the November 2018 election approaches:

“What is your stance on marijuana legalization in Texas?”

Abbott, who has a commanding lead in the polls, said he didn’t want the state’s jails overloaded with people for personal amounts of cannabis.

“One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” Abbott said during the debate. “What I would be open to talking to the legislature about would be reducing the penalty for possession of 2 ounces or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor.”

Valdez welcomed Abbott’s newfound compassion. “We agree on something,” Valdez said. The heated topic of marijuana legalization had Abbott and Valdez going back and forth for less than five minutes of the debate.

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In Texas, the personal possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana is currently a Class B misdemeanor and is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Under Abbott’s suggested plan, the possession of less than 2 ounces of cannabis could be reduced to a class C misdemeanor and subject to a $500 fine with no jail time, which is the same penalty assessed for cheating on a college exam or attending a dog fight, according to The Texas Politics Project.

But while Abbott said that he wasn’t convinced that the state should expand its medical marijuana program, Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, said the issue of future legalization efforts should be decided by the public.

“As far as recreational marijuana, I think it’s up to the people,” she said. “The people need to decide whether that’s going to be in Texas or not.”

Legalization could be on its way

Marijuana legalization could hold many benefits for the residents of Texas, regardless of whether they smoke as much cannabis as state icon Willie Nelson.

In addition to freeing up jail space for violent offenders that commit real crimes, legalization could potentially reduce opioid misuse, eliminate street-corner dealing and roll back some of the harm caused by the war on drugs.

And it appears that many Texans are beginning to change their views on cannabis, too.

In an April 19, 2018, Quinnipiac poll, nearly two-thirds of surveyed Texans offered support for the legalization of small amounts of marijuana by a margin of 61 to 34 percent. According to the poll, legalization was rejected by only two demographics: Republicans and the elderly. But for every other group surveyed, respondents felt the most dangerous thing about smoking marijuana in the state of Texas was getting caught with it by the police.

In another poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune on June 27, 2018, the survey found that most Texans are ready to legalize marijuana, but noted they must first overcome existing political obstacles, according to the Texas Tribune.

Legalization in Texas “is going to be slow, but it’s going that way,” Daron Shaw, a professor of government in the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll, told the Texas Tribune.

“In some ways, the handwriting is on the wall, and it’s pretty clear,” Shaw said. “Public opposition is diminishing, and if the economic or tax arguments change, it’s hard to see what would keep pot from getting on the agenda.”

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