While it’s unlikely that the Texas Legislature will lessen penalties for marijuana use in the 2017 session, House Bill 81, which would decrease the penalty for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to a ticket and a Class B misdemeanor, was passed out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Monday on a 4-2 vote with two Republicans in favor of the measure.
Coincidentally, the first Democrat to jump into the 2018 race against Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, is the co-author of a book on the failures of the war on drugs, prompting Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe to ask: “Is Texas Ready For Statewide Candidate Who Wants To Legalize Marijuana?”
The answer to that question, credulously setting aside partisanship for a moment, is: maybe. We usually ask people in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll which of four opinions comes closest to their opinion:
- Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances
- Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only
- Possession of small amounts of marijuana should be legal for any purpose
- Possession of any amount of marijuana should be legal for any purpose
At the beginning of the previous legislative session in February 2015, 24 percent of Texans endorsed the view that no marijuana possession should be legal. Thirty-six percent of Texans were willing to endorse the use of medical marijuana, and forty-two percent were in favor of marijuana possession for any purpose (twenty-six percent saying a small amount, sixteen percent saying any amount).
Two years later, at the beginning of the current legislative session, those in favor of complete prohibition dropped from 24 percent to 17 percent, while those willing to allow medical marijuana remained relatively stable at 30 percent. Those willing to allow possession of marijuana for any purpose increased 11 points, from 42 percent to 53 percent, with 32 percent saying that small amounts should be legal, and 21 percent -- on in five Texans -- saying that any amount should be legal.
|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%|
Even back in 2015, the vast majority of Texans (68 percent) supported the idea of reducing the penalties for small amounts of marijuana to a ticket and a fine – this might be called “decriminalization,” which the first question doesn’t really address.
But like all things political, there is partisan structure underlying these attitudes that make changing the state’s approach to drug penalties unlikely in the near-term. In the polling conducted at the beginning of the current session, 41 percent of Republicans supported allowing possession of marijuana, up from 31 percent in 2015, but a majority still takes the position that marijuana should either be illegal (24 percent) or only available for medicinal purposes (35 percent).
|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%|
However, as hinted at above, there’s a difference between legalization and decriminalization, and looking back at that 2015 item that assesses attitudes towards reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana, 60 percent of Republicans expressed support for such a proposal – and as we can see from the other attitudinal changes discussed above, it’s likely that Republican attitudes have liberalized further since then.
It would be extremely surprising to see the Legislature make any significant changes to the state’s marijuana possession laws in the current legislative session, particularly given Governor Greg Abbott’s opposition to decriminalization.
But it’s hard to imagine, given the current trajectory of public opinion, legislators not taking a serious look at marijuana laws within the next few sessions. On the decriminalization side, there’s probably a significant fiscal note to be considered when looking at what the state spends to lock people up on possession charges; the resources in both police time and court costs in processing cases of low-level possession; and any other number of tertiary consequences to the families or economic prospects of defendants. On the legalization side, there’s the possibility of a very rare thing in Texas: a new source of revenue that legislators could actually tap without necessarily raising the ire of constituents in either party. The politics appear to be catching up, however slowly, to the arguments proponents of at least decriminalization have long been making.
|Property tax dissatisfaction||55%|
|Motor fuels tax dissatisfaction||40%|
|Sales tax dissatisfaction||34%|
|Sin taxes dissatisfaction||34%|
|Business margins tax dissatisfaction||32%|