While Texas has ceded pioneer status to other states such as Colorado, Washington state, and, most recently, California (!) when it comes to legalizing the sale and use of marijuana, Texans’ attitudes toward decriminalization don’t lag far behind the national trend as much as inherited images of Texas’ cultural conservatism might suggest.
The issue is back on the public agenda after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind four Obama era memoranda that effectively prohibited federal prosecutors from targeting marijuana operations complying with state laws. Sessions’ not entirely unanticipated policy shove was met with swift rebukes from many in the media to varied economic players including the industry sprouting up around the production and distribution of legal cannabis. Even the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senator Cory Gardner (of Colorado though), pushed back against the former Alabama Senator with an invocation of states rights for the people of Colorado. The times they are a changin’?
That the backlash was swift, heartfelt, and fought with whatever ideological tools fit the moment is not entirely surprising. National opinion polls have continued to show an increasing tolerance for marijuana amongst the public. According to Gallup, national support for legalizing marijuana had climbed to 64 percent as of October of last year. These results are corroborated by the Pew Research Center, who found that support for legalizing marijuana has almost doubled since 2000, from 31 to 61 percent.
The story is much the same here in Texas, if with something of a lag, where The University of Texas / Texas Tribune poll has found increasing support, albeit unevenly, over a short two-year period.
In the poll, we asked Texas voters their preference on marijuana policy with an item that gives respondents a range of options (in short): (a) marijuana should never be legal; (b) marijuana should only be legal for medical purposes; (c) small amounts of marijuana should be legal for any purpose; and (d) any amount of marijuana should be legal for any purpose. In February of last year, a majority (53 percent) said that marijuana possession should be legal for any purpose (small and large quantities combined), an 11-point increase from two years prior (42 percent). Likewise, opposition to the use of marijuana for any purpose (medical or recreational) declined by 7-percentage points, from 24 percent in February 2015 to 17 percent in February 2017.
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances.||24%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only.||34%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||26%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||16%|
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances.||17%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only.||30%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||32%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||21%|
While support for legalizing marijuana is widespread and growing among Democrats (from 56 percent in 2015 to 62 percent in 2017), the increase in support is actually larger among Texas Republicans, even though overall support is less potent than among Democrats. In 2017, support for the legal possession and use of marijuana was 41 percent, a 10-point increase from 2015. The share of Republicans saying that marijuana should remain illegal in all circumstances likewise declined from 31 percent in 2015 to 24 percent in 2017 (or, put another way, a large majority of Texas Republicans – 76 percent – say that marijuana should be legal in at least some instances).
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances.||14%||21%||31%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only.||30%||36%||39%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||33%||19%||23%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||23%||24%||8%|
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances.||13%||6%||24%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only.||26%||27%||35%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||38%||36%||27%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.||24%||32%||14%|
While the trends are rather clear, this particular question might actually understate the case because of its focus on the legalization of marijuana. In a separate item from the June 2015 survey, respondents were asked about current Texas law, and their support or opposition to changing “the maximum penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana,” which “can include up to 180 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000” to a “punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a citation and a fine of $250?” Overall, 68 percent of Texans expressed support for what is essentially decriminalization (44 percent said that they would “strongly support” this change to current law). Once again, this support was not limited to Democrats – a majority of Republicans, 60 percent, also expressed support for such a change. If you’re a fan of slippery slope arguments when it comes to cultural mores, you might see decriminalization as the leading edge of a wave of attitudes more open to legalization.
The prospect of legal, or even decriminalized, marijuana possession in Texas remains a tough sell in a state where the remaining opposition likely resides in the electorally active wing of the majority party. But the strength of these attitudes is waning, even in conservative Texas, and a reversal seems even less likely than it did just a few years ago. The breadth and tone of the negative responses to Sessions’ policy initiatives suggest that the Attorney General’s policy directive is unlikely to curb the trends in public attitudes, even if policies in Texas take a bit longer to mellow.