Attorney Susan Hays filed to run as a Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, taking on the current occupant Republican Sid Miller. Hays has an extensive legal background, including as a cannabis attorney. She was also instrumental in advocating and drafting the 2019 Texas hemp law. We spoke to Hays about her background, her candidacy, and how she would approach the role of agriculture commissioner. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Obviously, the current agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, is quite a character. How would you approach leading this organization as opposed to how he does it?
Well, you can be a character without being a nonstop scandal. I was lucky to come of age politically at a time when people tried to make government work and what I see too much these days is leadership that’s not even trying to govern. Few people know it, but this office has a rural hospital component and a rural economic development component, and they are rotting in the basement. And that’s not fair to rural Texans. And it’s particularly awful given the crisis that’s ongoing with our rural hospitals.
There’s been so many closures. Then the impact of COVID-19. And the fact that we haven’t expanded Medicaid.
Failure to expand Medicaid is a great example of Republican policies that are terrible for rural Texans. I spent the pandemic in Alpine, and I now pretty much live there. It was terrifying to be in a community like that with the pandemic and there’s only three ventilators for three counties. I had an opportunity to speak with some of the physicians about what they went through. Doctors were providing care that they practiced a few times in medical school and don’t regularly do because there’s no other option. There was a period, where because hospitals in Midland and El Paso were full, they had no place to send patients. That’s awful to do to people. I’ll also say this about rural healthcare, having grown up in rural Texas, I know how important having a rural hospital is to the local economy. I grew up in Brown County. That hospital drew from all the surrounding counties. And I watched that hospital stumble and not do well because of the economics of it. And because it [was] run by an out-of-state corporation that doesn’t particularly care.
You are a cannabis attorney. And I know that legalizing cannabis is a major plank of yours. Could you talk a little more about that?
There’s a lot of buzz about legalizing and decriminalizing, but not a lot of thoughtfulness on the part of the state of Texas on developing really well-thought-out cannabis policy. We have a really great hemp bill, at least I like to think so because I helped write it. But we don’t have the system in place to really implement regulating and enforcing. Our medical cannabis program is comically rudimentary. It does not allow people access who deserve it and need it. You look at maps of where there’s medical cannabis and Texas usually is counted as not having a program at all, because it’s such a joke. It needs to be updated and we need to be ready. And what I think folks who may be anti-cannabis don’t understand is unless you have a good regulatory regime, the black markets flood you. And that’s already happening in Texas. On the legalization piece of it, we’re now seeing poll numbers come out that more than fifty percent of Republican voters want it legalized. We’re way behind where the public is. We’re way behind where the marketplace is. One thing I’ve seen by studying cannabis policy in other states, when the government gets behind the market, bad things happen.
I see. Could you talk about that?
An example from only a few years ago. The vaping crisis. EVALI was the acronym for the condition that people developed. That happened because black market vapes with adulterants hit the market and it burned people’s lungs out. This state is not prepared to deal with something like that because of the lack of enforcement mechanism. We’re spending a billion dollars on the border, and we can’t get ten million dollars to get our forensic crime labs where they need to be to handle things like a mystery substance in a vape. It’s just the wrong way to go about it.
Sid Miller has been clamoring for a fourth special session, this one to ban any COVID-19 vaccine mandate. How do you feel about that?
Well, I’ll start by saying Sid Miller needs to focus on his own job and quit throwing out red-meat sound bites. If he wants to worry about pandemic issues, he needs to worry about rural hospitals and not vaccine mandates. But what do you expect from a guy when one of his first acts when he became AG Commissioner was to promote junk food in public schools? Which is the exact opposite of what an AG Commissioner ought to be doing. About eighty percent of the budget of that agency is school lunch for people with disabilities and people with food security. Do you really trust Sid Miller with your kid’s school lunch?
Are there any other issues that you would like to champion as agriculture commissioner?
Doing more to help farmers instead of nickel and dime tax them to death, which is what Miller does. And I’ll take the hemp program as an example. One of the problems of getting into hemp, the varieties of hemp that are for sale aren’t predictable. Hemp is very climate sensitive and also photo sensitive. The latitude it’s grown in really matters. A variety that does really well in Oregon, won’t do well in Texas. [The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA)] collects data on varieties. You have to only use approved varieties. You have to tell them what varieties you’re growing. And you have to tell them your results. That data could be analyzed in a way that would make it really helpful to farmers.
I could see why that would be helpful!
Anecdotally and personally, one of the things that would infuriate me is I would email them a question about the program, and I get that’s it’s a first rodeo and there’s a lot of details you don’t think of until you get there, and that’s happened in every other state as a hemp program has rolled out. I would get three different answers from three different people. It’s hard to do business with [TDA]. Government can be used to help people make money. To help people live better lives. And that means focusing on your job and engaging on analyzing how to do that effectively, and then actually doing it. Instead of just throwing out press releases, attacking groups of peoples, or mimicking national red-meat politics.
Dan Patrick has been very adamant against marijuana legalization. If you were to have to interact with him, how would you navigate that?
Talk about how we have to get ahead of the markets. An example is the Delta-8 issue. Even before that the smokable hemp issue. Patrick’s office wanted to ban smokable hemp. To even accomplish your own policy goals, you need to understand the subject matter. My reaction to they want to “ban smokable hemp,” was ‘don’t you know you can smoke as it grows out of the ground?’ In my practice, I’ve found middle ground with Republicans and it’s possible to do. I have a great working relationship with Senator Charles Perry. We respect each other, and we can sit down and have a conversation. Politics is the art of the possible.
Is there anything else that you’d like to say about why you’re running?
It’s the deep frustration of watching what’s happening to the state and watching the communities where I grew up and used to run around as a teenager, not do near as well as they should because of policy choices. Because of letting a rural hospital program rot in the basement. Not looking for ways for small farmers or even medium-sized operations to do well in agriculture.