Could Legalization of Marijuana Be in Texas's Future?
As you drive up the long, gravel-lined drive of the small clapboard house in south Texas, not much seems unusual. An old hunting dog suns himself on the porch, and the modest decor of the peeling front porch — a weathered rocker and a swing — drips with small-town charm.
You'd never guess that it's quite modern inside, though. Just beyond the front door sit not only tidy living quarters, but a sophisticated cannabis grow house presided over by a war veteran whose hands curl like claws most mornings. His knees and back ache, making mobility difficult, especially when it rains. And here in this small town by the water, it rains often.
A cannabis advocate and medical user, Tim, who asked that we not use his real name, has been smoking cannabis daily for a number of years now, and after a while, growing his own marijuana by means of a hydroponic system seemed the logical way to go.
The contraption he built seems more the brainchild of a mad scientist-cum-expert gardener than of this older country man, but it is his nonetheless. He has crafted it all, from the vent system, powered by two minuscule computer fans, to the plant's light source, an advanced-technology LED lighting system.
In the ten or so years that Tim has been growing, he's become quite the indoor gardener. It's just too risky to grow marijuana outside, and with his apparatus, Tim can control the conditions, genetics and potency of the plant. The lights are set to the flowering and vegetative cycle, and with the careful acuity it takes to garden in here, he sometimes gets two crops from one plant.
What he can't control are the laws of Texas, the ones that say what he is doing is illegal. It's against the law to grow marijuana and equally illegal to use it for any purpose — even though cannabinoids, an active component of cannabis sativa, or marijuana, are widely regarded as a pain reliever for rheumatoid arthritis.
Perhaps not for much longer, though, for reasons as much practical as humanitarian.
With the reefer madness currently going on around the nation, a peculiar thing has happened. Texas has started discussing the unthinkable: legalizing marijuana.
Look back a couple of years, and a pro-pot stance in Texas was equal to political death. The only politicians brave enough to broach the subject — guys like Kinky Friedman — were going to be a tough sell to the general public anyway. Today, though, addressing your pot stance is an expected part of the platform.
If the results of recent polls are correct, it seems that Texas residents want what other states have: legalization. A poll conducted by The University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed that 77 percent of registered voters in Texas believe in some form of legalization. Of that, 28 percent would agree only to medical legalization, while 49 percent are in favor of blanket legalization.
It makes sense that Texans would also set their eyes on the big business of legal reefer. After all, it appears to have worked out well for the states that have repealed prohibitions on marijuana.
Colorado's and Washington's pot industries are thriving. The governor of Colorado has predicted that the next fiscal year will bring the state $98 million in cannabis sales and taxes, a figure that is well above projections. While Washington state is still in the early days of its blanket legalization, forecasters predict that the state will see as much as $190 million over a four-year period, starting in 2015.
Small-business growth in both states is booming, and new cannabis-related jobs are popping up daily in everything from bud-tending to pot tourism. The nation's first "pot editor," Richard Baca, has been hired by The Denver Post; our sister paper Westword in Denver has had a pot writer for the past five years; and a host of other media outlets now employ cannabis writers and reviewers. It seems pot is big business at the moment, and folks from out of state are flocking to Colorado job fairs in record numbers in hopes of landing a gig in the industry.
Contrary to what was predicted in the days prior to legalization in Colorado, cannabis sales aren't raising crime rates. In fact, it appears that in the age of legal weed, crime rates in Colorado are falling. Denver has seen a decrease in property crime and violent crime in the three months that marijuana has been legal, which directly contradicts what opponents had said. Perhaps there is indeed something to that old mellow-pothead stereotype, at least in the Centennial State.
The movement of states on medical marijuana has snowballed, and 22 states and Washington, D.C., have now legalized medical marijuana. As of May 15, Minnesota became the 22nd state to legalize medical cannabis, but the agreed-upon legislation, a toned-down version of the original bill, limits Minnesota to much tighter restrictions than other states. While the law now allows medical patients in the state to use the drug in oil, pill or vapor form, use of the actual marijuana plant is not allowed. The legislation also limits the number of manufacturing facilities and dispensaries statewide.
Six more states — Florida, Kansas, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania — have medical marijuana legislation pending. Texas doesn't have anything in the works, medically or otherwise, not yet, but where there was once silence on the part of the political powers, there is now quiet discussion.
Marijuana's potentially life-saving properties are causing an influx of Texans into Colorado. Take the Loew family, for instance. Amber and Paul Loew were living in Crosby, Texas, with their three-year-old daughter, Hannah. Diagnosed with Dravet syndrome when she was six months old, Hannah suffered from 50 to 100 severe seizures every day, which were caused by the progressive form of epilepsy.
The Loews tried the traditional treatments for Hannah's seizures, but none of the 12 medications were successful in slowing the progression of the disease. Hannah's condition continued to deteriorate, and her seizures — some of which lasted for more than an hour — landed her on life support three times. The Loews had heard stories of Dravet syndrome being treated successfully with a liquid form of medical marijuana, but it wasn't available in Texas. They were left with two options: Give up on their daughter's health or give up on their home state.
They opted for the one-way ticket to Colorado.
Anecdotal cases similar to the Loews' about the wonders of pot treatment can be found in droves. Families, friends and medical patients have flocked to the Centennial State to seek treatment for various ailments, and many of them have deemed the interventions a success.
The University of California's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research — a facility that uses "gold standard" FDA clinical trial methodology — has concluded from its research that marijuana should be the first line of treatment for patients with neuropathy and other serious illnesses.
The center has found that marijuana eases neuropathic pain — which is the pain associated with cancer and is notoriously hard to relieve — as well as pain associated with diabetes, HIV/AIDS and spinal-cord injury. The center has also determined that smoked cannabis is a superior treatment for the spasticity and pain caused by multiple sclerosis, and is beneficial well beyond other current treatments.
Research at the facility is looking into cannabinoids' ability to help moderate autoimmune disorders as well; while it is widely accepted that marijuana is a treatment for one type of autoimmune disorder — multiple sclerosis — investigators are now looking into the role that marijuana might play in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Research on whether cannabinoids would be effective when used for treatment of Alzheimer's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease is also taking place, as are investigations into the anticancer properties of marijuana.
Researchers aren't the only group recognizing pot's changing reputation. Rick Perry, Texas's conservative governor, has been as hard-nosed about drug reform as he has about reproductive rights. The politician was well known to the rest of the nation for offering liberal tax breaks for big businesses, and he managed to shock the world again with his new views on decriminalization.
Perry stated that "after 40 years of the war on drugs, [I] can't change what happened in the past. What [I] can do as the governor of the second-largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keep people from going to prison and destroying their lives."
Under Perry's idea of decriminalization, possession would lead to a drug court and fines, and it would still be technically illegal to possess or use marijuana, but it would no longer be a criminal offense in some cases.
And it's politicians like Perry who are charged with putting decriminalization and legalization into action in Texas. Unlike in other states, Texas's cannabis laws must be changed at the legislative level, which means that a public ballot is not an option as it has been elsewhere. If there is to be change, it's the politicians who will have to engineer it.
A few seem ready and willing to do so. Wendy Davis has been carefully supportive of Texas's moving toward decriminalization of medical marijuana, and has not shut down talk about blanket legalization, either.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson spoke up in favor of change during a recent debate among Republican candidates for lieutenant governor. While he was careful to comment only on medical marijuana, the answer he gave to the moderator's question was nonetheless surprisingly candid.
"We have medical barbiturates. We have medical amphetamines. We have medical codeine," Patterson said. "I see nothing wrong with that. We're talking about medicine. We're not talking about recreational use."
While Davis, Perry and Patterson have discussed only the idea of cannabis law changes, two Texas politicians, State Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Harold Dutton, are putting their money where their mouths are.
For the past seven sessions, Naishtat has presented House Bill 594, which aims to give seriously ill patients an affirmative defense for pot possession, and would not only allow judges the discretion to dismiss charges in such cases, but would also protect doctors who suggest marijuana as a treatment option.
Dutton, on the other hand, focuses on decriminalization for small amounts of marijuana in House Bill 184, which would make possession of up to one ounce a fine-only offense in Texas. It has been filed in a number of sessions without moving forward, but Dutton continues to press on anyway.
As political support becomes more vocal, so does the support of outside groups, many of which have moved to Texas with one goal in mind — legalization.
One of the most prominent forces in the legalization movement, the Marijuana Policy Project, set up shop in Austin earlier this year. The group, which was the reigning force in Colorado's legalization push, has also been an essential player in the legalization of medical pot in 18 states. It has set its sights on legalization for the Lone Star State.
MPP is backing that campaign up with some serious resources, too. The group has pledged to spend $200,000 a year on the legalization movement in Texas over the next five years, and has hired lobbyist Randal Kuykendall to help lead the way. MPP's main goal, three "perfect bills" — one addressing decrim, one "medi-pot" and one legalization — is slated to be presented to lawmakers by 2015.
A monumental task, yes, but the group has quite a bit of help coming its way. Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, held its inaugural meeting in Houston in March, and is exploring initiatives on issues such as medical marijuana and decriminalization, while also taking on related issues such as industrial hemp and the taxing structure of legalization.
RAMP has as good a chance to succeed as anybody else, with founder and director Ann Lee at the helm. Lee, a founder of Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California, is a lifelong Republican whose attitude toward medi-pot changed after her son's workplace accident left him a paraplegic with chronic nerve pain. Lee has made it RAMP's mission to educate conservative lawmakers on the criminalization of cannabis by talking about traditionally conservative principles — limited government, fiscal responsibility and individual liberty — in a unique approach to the barriers conservatives pose to the legalization movement.
Lee has managed to bring other strong forces on board, too. Terry Nelson, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a former U.S. Border Patrol agent, U.S. Customs agent and Department of Homeland Security agent, spoke in support of the group at the inaugural meeting. John Delaney, a senior district judge who handles child abuse and neglect cases, and Richard A. Evans, M.D., founder of the Texas Cancer Center, spoke as well.
Branches of NORML, a nationwide nonprofit whose mission is to "move public opinion sufficiently to achieve the repeal of marijuana prohibition so that the responsible use of cannabis by adults is no longer subject to penalty," are popping up at a rapid pace across Texas. The group has always been a constant on the legalization forefront, but has managed to make waves recently with the establishment of a branch in a very unlikely place: El Paso. Thanks in part to NORML, El Paso has become an ally in the legalization movement, with a number of legalization supporters emerging from the border city.
Progress Texas, a group of progressive activists, has also set its sights on Texas. The organization's main goal — supporting the legalization movement — has it trudging away, launching surveys, spreading information and promoting conversation in any way possible.
Although Tim seems to have perfected the art of growing marijuana in his hidden hydroponic growing system, he and the other medical marijuana users in Texas are still incredibly paranoid about getting caught. The stiff fines and harsh penalties for pot possession make possession a risky proposition, even if it's desperately needed to soothe the ache of old bones.
The amount of cannabis in Tim's hidden indoor "garden" is hardly enough to ease all the pain from the arthritis in his bones, but it's certainly enough to earn him some serious jail time. The state of Texas is serious when it comes to pot possession, and there's already one man, Jason Lavoro, facing a life sentence for possessing pot brownies.
Lavoro was running a small-time edibles operation in Round Rock, Texas, where he would bake and sell small batches of cookies and brownies infused with hash oil, a form of cannabis created by dissolving marijuana or hashish in a solvent such as petroleum ether. Possessing any amount of marijuana will result in a misdemeanor, but being found in possession of any amount of hash oil — even an ounce — is a state felony. Lavoro was in possession of much, much more. At least by law enforcement standards.
In cases like Lavoro's, where a person is in possession of an oil or extract rather than the plant itself, it is perfectly legal for law enforcement to calculate the amount of hash oil by weighing the product in which it is used. In this case, the weight of those hash cookies and brownies, not the oil itself, resulted in Lavoro's being charge with a first-degree felony. And now the penalty Lavoro faces is the same as a murder charge would bring in Texas — five to life — for pot brownies.
Cannabis is still federally listed as a Schedule 1 drug, despite numerous recommendations by researchers and scientists to change that status. That means it comes with some serious penalties if you're unlucky enough to possess it outside of a more liberal state.
It is penalties like these that cannabis users look to circumvent in Texas, and one of the easier ways to do so is by finding a legal alternative. One such substance is synthetic marijuana, which is sold under names like "K2" or "Spice." Those products are created by dusting shredded plant material with a chemical compound meant to mimic the effects of cannabis, and they are available for purchase at head shops or gas stations.
While the two drugs do resemble one another in appearance, the intoxication effects of the chemical compounds in synthetic marijuana could not be further from a cannabis high. Users risk everything from rapid heart rates and elevated blood pressure to life-threatening hallucinations and seizures. A number of the synthetic cannabinoid compounds used to make these products have been listed as Schedule 1 drugs, but with the relative ease of tweaking the compounds to create additional "legal" versions, combating synthetic marijuana is a harrowing task for law enforcement.
The possible dangers posed by the substances users are ingesting also create a harrowing crapshoot. Tinkering with the chemical compounds may allow producers to skirt the definition of "illegal," but doing so also skirts the issue of safety. This became fairly evident during a span of five days in early May, when 120 people overdosed on a synthetic form of marijuana in Texas.
Austin and Dallas were the hardest hit, and emergency rooms were full of patients suffering from the ill effects of a synthetic cannabinoid compound. Their symptoms ranged from abnormal behavior to severe agitation, and many had to be sedated and restrained. Law enforcement officials think that the bad batches of synthetic marijuana may have originated with the same dealer in Austin, but little can be done to curb the sale or distribution of these drugs.
These overdoses are symptoms of a deeper K2 problem in Texas. Synthetic marijuana is dangerous, but it continues to be seen as a safe alternative to illegal drugs like cannabis. It's cheap, easy to distribute and legal to possess. On paper, everything about the drug makes it seem like a viable alternative to pot.
Yet the addictive qualities and the unpredictable high of synthetic marijuana have made combating it difficult. It's not just the typical drug user who's attracted to it, either. At times, it's the very people charged with your safety who are using it.
According to a 2014 University of Washington study, "Addictive Behavior," synthetics are two times more likely to be used by members of the army, since they're legal. In addition to being cheap and legal, synthetic marijuana is nearly undetectable by traditional drug tests. That makes it a viable option for members of groups, like law enforcement and the military, who are drug-tested regularly and are looking to avoid detectible THC residue.
While federal law has been circumvented by way of state policies on cannabis in Colorado and Washington, and even in states like California, where medi-pot (but not recreational pot) is legal, Texas is one of the last states that take that Schedule 1 ranking to heart. Arrests and incarcerations are prevalent.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, 73,611 adult arrests were made in 2013 for marijuana possession. Cannabis accounts for 59 percent of all drug arrests in Texas, and it costs us $50,000 a year to incarcerate each person in such cases.
Those are some stiff penalties for a plant, and at Tim's age and in his condition, he often wonders if growing the plant is worth the risk.
Texas makes no allowance for the use of medical marijuana, and possession is treated the same in all cases. A person in possession of two ounces or less in Texas faces 180 days in jail or a $2,000 fine, and it doesn't matter if he or she has a verifiable illness that will benefit from cannabis. When the amount increases to four ounces, it comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days in jail, no matter the circumstances.
If the push for legalization in Texas continues, there may be a day when pot penalties are no longer a threat.
Until then, Tim will sit in his little clapboard house in south Texas, tending to his indoor grow lab and hoping that he stays under the radar. Change is a-comin', he knows that much; it's just a matter of how and when.
Lucky for him, the cannabinoids in those illegal pot plants have made crossing his fingers a possibility.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Ratings Wars: 5 Reasons the Texans Will Outpace the Astros on TV Thursday Night
- Colts-Texans, Week 5 — Four Things To Watch For
- "Flag Desecration" Laws Are Still Unconstitutional, Even in Texas