Texas has some of the country’s strictest laws against marijuana — and they date back nearly 100 years. But new polls show growing support across the state to legalize marijuana use. This weekend, drug reform advocates are gathering in Dallas for the first major drug policy conference of 2014, hosted by Mothers Against Teen Violence.
Shaun McAlister says he’s always been a “fan of the herb,” but he’s not about to give up the legalization fight and move to Colorado or Washington, states that allow recreational marijuana sales.
“Like hell I’m abandoning Texas,” says McAlister, 29, a Fort Worth native. “I don’t want to move away to be more free. That’s silly to me.”
McAlister runs DFW NORML,the North Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He talked an Arlington pub he says is “friendly to the cause.”
It’s filled with people smoking … cigarettes.
That’s because in Texas, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can land you in jail for up to six months and set you back $2,000.
“It’s time for a change,” McAlister says. “We never had a realistic basis for prohibiting the substance to begin with.”
It all goes back to El Paso
To understand why marijuana is illegal in Texas, we have to go back 100 years, to the border city of El Paso.
At the time, you could buy cannabis over the counter, and even order it by mail. But there was a growing fear in both Mexico and the United States that the drug turned people violent. That fear seemed to became reality in Mexico on New Year’s Day 1913.
“Supposedly this guy who was smoking marijuana all day goes on this rampage through the streets of Juarez,” Isaac Campos says. “He supposedly runs down the street with a knife, chases American tourists, stabbed some horses, killed a policeman.”
Campos, associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and author of “Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs,” says reports of the Juarez rampage reached the deputy sheriff in El Paso, a man named Stanley Good.
“[Good] gets obsessed with the issue and goes on this campaign to get an ordinance in El Paso banning it,” Campos said.
He says prejudice against marijuana was especially intense in Texas because the drug was associated with Mexicans – despite the fact that most Mexicans feared the drug.
“It’s not that Mexicans come across the border smoking a lot of marijuana, and then people gain prejudice against marijuana,” Campos says. It’s that “Mexican immigrants come across and people are prejudiced against the immigrants and that further fuels their anti-marijuana prejudice.”
Drug reform advocates say the fears that led to the first law banning marijuana in Texas nearly 100 years ago are still behind drug policy today.
A neuroscientist challenges today’s laws
Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, says the country’s regulation of marijuana is not based on pharmacology or science, but instead on “social and cultural factors.”
Hart, the author of “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery,” will be giving the keynote speech at the drug policy conference in Dallas this weekend. He aims to debunk the myth that Marijuana is a gateway drug.
“That is not true,” Hart says. “What is true is that people who smoke cocaine or who use heroin, the majority of those people have indeed used marijuana. But the vast majority of people who use marijuana never go on to use anything else. And they don’t become addicted.”
So, Hart argues, it’s time to focus on educating people about marijuana and decriminalizing its use. That, Hart says, will save thousands of people from having a criminal record. Right now in Texas, more than 24,000 non-violent drug offenders are incarcerated, and many more are on probation.
What do Texans want?
A 2013 poll in Texas conducted by Public Policy Polling showed a majority of support for both medical and recreational use of marijuana — as well as a desire to change the state’s laws to lower penalties for recreational possession.
According to the poll, 58 percent of Texans “support making marijuana legal for adults and regulating it like alcohol,” and 61 percent were in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession of an ounce or less to a civil, not criminal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $100.
While the Texas Democratic Party endorsed marijuana decriminalization in 2012, Texas Republicans, like State Sen. John Carona, aren’t budging.
“Calls to liberalize our drug laws fall upon deaf ears,” Carona says. “It’s not something I’m willing to consider.”
First elected to the Texas Legislature in 1990, Carona is now in his sixth term.
“As a conservative, as a father of five, grandfather of five, I think anything that relaxes drug policy in this state is the wrong direction,” Carona says. “In fact, I would go further. What we should have done years ago is have a real war on drugs, to strictly enforce these laws in such a way that people would respect them.”
“Those people are high”
As for those who think legalization is possible when the legislature meets in 2015, Carona says: “Pardon the pun, but those people are high.”
“Drug policy in Texas and marijuana legalization is not going to happen in 2015,” he said. “All anyone needs to do is look at the makeup of the House and the Senate, realizing how conservative we are here in Texas. That hope for change is just wishful thinking.”
This weekend, several hundred of those “wishful thinkers” will gather to talk drug policy at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas.
Bob Chessey in El Paso contributed research on drug use and smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border.