Talk of the Texas Legislature passing some legislation to lighten the state’s traditionally harsh marijuana laws have been in the air since long before the 86th legislature got underway in January. The expectations, cultivated by a combination of optimistic advocates and click-seeking news outlets, were fleetingly validated with the House of Representatives’ passage of Rep. Joe Moody’s bill (ultimately watered down) containing reduced misdemeanor penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and lowering the threshold for having those convictions expunged from one’s record.
The euphoria among supporters, however, was short lived. As Alex Samuels wrote in The Texas Tribune, “Less than 24 hours after the Texas House gave preliminary approval to a bill reducing the criminal penalties for Texans found to possess small amounts of marijuana, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.” While this move wasn’t surprising, it may have caught some by surprise given shifting public attitudes towards marijuana, even among the Lt. Governor’s biggest supporters. Nonetheless, the Lt. Governor currently appears to be the major obstacle to any of the marijuana legislation passed in the house landing on the governor’s desk.
At first blush, the optimism of marijuana advocates was understandable, given the national momentum toward medical marijuana, decriminalization and even outright legalization, often buttressed by trends in public opinion, as well as the broader context of conservative participation in an increasingly broad criminal justice reform movement that has included reconsideration of Texas’s default positions on punishment for even minor drug offenses.
Trends in public attitudes have even been detectable in Texas, adding fuel to the fire of reform efforts. For example, in February 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling, only 20 percent of Texas voters said that Marijuana should be illegal in all circumstances, including for medicinal purposes. A slight majority, 54 percent, took the position that either small or large amounts of marijuana should be legal for recreational purposes.
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances||20%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only||26%|
|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||22%|
So why was Lt. Governor Patrick so quick to kill the House’s buzz on marijuana? The most likely explanation lies in the sober views of legalization among the most conservative (and likely to vote in GOP primaries) voters in the Texas electorate. Republicans as a whole are less amenable to loosening marijuana laws than their Democratic counterparts – 27 percent said that the drug should remain illegal in all circumstances, compared to only 11 percent of Democrats.
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances||11%||27%||27%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only||21%||19%||33%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal||37%||34%||27%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal||31%||20%||13%|
But amongst the groups who make up a disproportionate share of the GOP primary electorate, attitudes are a bit more harsh. Among “strong Republicans,” 35 percent oppose any legal use of marijuana, and when you combine those views with those who only support medicinal marijuana, that number climbs to 69 percent. So more than two-thirds of the staunchest GOP voters are still de-facto opponents of recreational use.
|category||Lean Republican||Not very strong Republican||Strong Republican|
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances||22%||12%||35%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only||33%||33%||34%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal||32%||40%||20%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal||13%||15%||12%|
Among the most conservative voters in the electorate, 39 percent support complete prohibition, with another 33 percent supportive of medical marijuana only, resulting in a combined 72 percent opposed to recreational use.
|category||Leaning conservative||Somewhat conservative||Extremely conservative|
|Marijuana possession should not be legal under any circumstances||13%||27%||39%|
|Marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes only||29%||33%||33%|
|Possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal||39%||29%||14%|
|Possession of any amount of marijuana for any purpose should be legal||19%||11%||13%|
Evidence of these attitudes among core GOP voters should be expected to condition political responses to decreased penalties or to expanded access to marijuana or its derivatives. In statements released to the press, the Lieutenant Governor has framed Rep. Moody’s bill and other marijuana legislation by invoking the belief that allowing expanded medical uses of marijuana would create a gateway to outright legalization. In a Texas Tribune round-up of the prospects of marijuana legislation in March, Alex Samuels quoted a Patrick statement to this effect: “In a statement to The Texas Tribune,” Samuels wrote, “Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is ‘strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.’”
Yet Patrick may well be framing the issue based on only one dimension of GOP public opinion. The survey item discussed so far focuses on three options: outright criminalization, medical marijuana and legal, recreational marijuana – which obscures the point of Moody’s recently passed bill. In a June 2018 UT/TT poll, we asked about “reducing [the] punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a citation and a fine of $250" – which touches on attitudes much closer to the intent of Moody’s bill. Interestingly enough, there’s as much, if not more support for reducing the penalties associated with small amounts of marijuana possession than for various outright legalization paths – even among key GOP constituencies.
For example, overall support for reduced penalties in that poll was 69 percent, including 62 percent of Republicans. And while “strong Republicans” were less supportive, 56 percent still express support for lower penalties, with much higher support among less strongly aligned Republicans.
|Don't know / No opinion||9%|
|Don't know / No opinion||7%||14%||10%|
Patrick may be right in concluding that his voters don’t embrace legal, recreational use of marijuana. But a deeper dive into the data fails to uncover any major pockets of opposition to an alternative policy shift of reduced penalties for possession of small amounts. Lessening those penalties was supported by 65 percent of rural voters, 65 percent of those over the age of 65, and even 54 percent of fundamentalist voters. If we dive deeper still, it remains hard to uncover any serious opposition to reduced penalties. Considering the same groups above, and only looking at the responses of Republicans among them, 62 percent of rural Republicans supported decreased penalties; 57 percent of Republicans over the age of 65; and even 49 percent (a plurality) of fundamentalist Republicans.
The vague zone here between recreational legalization and reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana has enabled the Lt. Governor to frame any and all attempts to liberalize the state’s marijuana policy as a slippery slope that ends in Texas becoming Amsterdam (or worse yet, California). But the trajectory of other states’ experiences notwithstanding, given the relaxed attitudes among these key GOP constituencies, the Lt. Governor’s expressed opposition to the House’s approaches does make him appear out of step with even his most conservative supporters. During the last decade, conservatives have played a major role in the discussions about criminal justice reform that have included a reassessment of the state’s approach to minor drug offenses. Within that frame, and the available public opinion, the Texas GOP’s most successful arch-conservative looks a bit like he’s still fighting the culture wars of yesteryear.