Abbott lags far behind everyone on marijuana policy

by | Dec 2, 2021 | Criminal Justice, Policy

After six years on the job, Gov. Greg Abbott has little to show for when it comes to marijuana policy.

Unsurprisingly, the incumbent governor is oceans apart on the issue compared to his Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke, who authored a book about legalizing weed back when he was an El Paso councilmember, and who is now campaigning to repeal the prohibition and grant clemency to those serving sentences for possession. 

But even when it comes to members of his own party, Abbott is struggling to keep up with the times.

For example, South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace recently introduced legislation in the House to federally decriminalize marijuana and give states more leeway in legalizing the drug. 

In April, Mace was one of 106 House Republicans and 215 Democrats to vote in favor of legislation to allow legal cannabis businesses to gain access to banking and financial services. The votes in favor included the entirety of the Texas Democratic delegation, as well as five Texas Republicans, Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Troy Nehls, Van Taylor, Tony Gonzales, and Beth Van Duyne.

Mace’s work is not particularly unique or impressive in the Democrat-controlled House which had already advanced legislation to legalize weed a year prior (in that case, supported only by a handful of Republicans).

Still, it is a sign GOP members are finally catching up to how much of the American public feels about cannabis. It’s also a clear signal to Democrats to get moving on the issue before the rug is pulled out from under their feet.

More relevant to Texas and Abbott, Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines, who has built his campaign on sinking his teeth on red-meat issues and trying to impress the Trump base, has somehow found room to flank Abbott from the left, arguing during a conservative talk radio show appearance that marijuana should be decriminalized.

That’s more than Abbott has ever committed rhetorically to or in practice. 

While up for re-election in 2018, Abbott said he was open to reducing criminal penalties (not decriminalization), but he never made any serious attempt to pressure the Texas Senate after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick torpedoed that exact campaign promise the following year.

Likewise, in 2019 after hemp was legalized and county district attorney offices around the state announced they would no longer be accepting criminal charges for misdemeanor possession of marijuana because they could not test the differences between both plants, Abbott joined Texas GOP leadership in chastising those officials and clarifying that marijuana had not been decriminalized in the state. 

The only praise that can be afforded to Abbott on marijuana reform is the legalization of low-THC cannabis products for Texans with certain medical conditions such as epilepsy. That list has been slowly expanded, both in 2019 and 2021 to include post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. 

“Unfortunately, current leadership has made sure that this program is rolled out very, very slowly, that minimal licenses are issued to businesses regardless of their qualifications,” Heather Fazio, director for the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy told the Signal. “We continue to see advocates having to beg and plead to lawmakers and state leadership why patients should be allowed to access medical cannabis.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures finds Texas is one of 11 states that allows CBD products for medical purposes, compared to 36 states that have set up more comprehensive medical cannabis programs with fewer restrictions — including states near Texas with Republican-controlled legislatures, like Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.    

David Bass, founder of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, said his group believes cannabis should be completely legal in Texas.  “We don’t believe anybody should be arrested for possession of cannabis,” Bass said. “Governor Abbott does not support legalizing cannabis in Texas.”

“It’s going to be an interesting governor’s race for Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana because of course, we agree with Beto’s views on cannabis, but most strongly disagree with Beto’s views about the second amendment,” Bass said. 

A recent poll by the University of Houston and Texas Southern University finds 67 percent of Texans support legalizing the sale and use of recreational marijuana, including 79 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans.

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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