It’s still a crime to smoke weed in the Lone Star state, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from sparking up in the streets of downtown Fort Worth Saturday. These blazed souls chose to puff in civil disobedience as a part of a pro-pot reform rally organized by the Fort Worth-Dallas chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Bearing banners, posters, flags, and blunts, the marchers blazed a trail through the urban canyons.
“Let them out!” the marchers yelled as they passed by the Tarrant County Corrections Center.
“Legalize it now!” they chanted on their way to City Hall, where they held a rally and smoke session on the steps as police watched from across the street.
Fort Worth recently deprioritized arrests for low-level marijuana crimes, meaning police officers will no longer haul someone to jail for a joint. Nevertheless, possession is still considered a criminal offense, and officers can issue citations for the possession of less than four ounces.
But no citations were issued on Saturday. Fort Worth police provided traffic control for the march and otherwise didn’t harsh the mellow. Rally organizers indicated that a sort of truce had been struck with the cops for the day’s events.
“They just asked us to not blow smoke in their faces,” said Shaun McAlister, executive director of DFW NORML, to the crowd in Burnett Park just before the march kicked off at — when else? — 4:20 p.m.
The chill vibe reflects a growing consensus among Texans that marijuana possession and use should not be a crime. Nearly nine out of 10 voters believe it should be legal in some form, while only 13% believe it should be criminalized, according to a June 23 poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. That’s a major shift from 10 years ago, when twice as many supported prohibition. It seems the state has been struck with a case of Reefer Gladness.
Despite this overwhelming support for reform, resistance from lawmakers has allowed Texas to fall behind our neighbors. New Mexico voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2021, while Oklahoma and Louisiana have both had robust medical programs for several years. For Texans, it should be a mortal wound that Oklahoma would beat us at anything.
For its part, Texas does have a highly limited medical program known as the Texas Compassionate Use Program (TCUP), but unlike other states, which allow a broader range of patients to access a variety of medical products with varying levels of THC and cannabinoids, the TCUP provides access to low-THC cannabis oil only for a limited set of conditions. It also requires patients to register with the Department of Public Safety, as opposed to a medical agency.
Patients like Shawn Meredith, an Austinite who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1984 and suffers from severe spasms, told me that cannabis is the only thing that reduces his symptoms but that the TCUP program doesn’t meet his needs.
“Every state around Texas has a legit medical cannabis program,” Meredith said, “but here I have to drink a cup of oil just to get less than 1% THC. I can go get legal hemp flower with similar amounts of THC at the store around the corner from my house for less money than the Compassionate Use program.”
Advocates say that resistance to reform in Texas stems from structural issues in our state government, a lack of proper education, and the lingering legacy of the prejudicial roots of criminalization.
“States that allow for public referendums were the first to come around,” said David Sloane, the public information officer for DFW NORML and a successful criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth who specializes in THC cases.
But the Texas Constitution doesn’t allow for a referendum, meaning that the issue has to go through the legislative process. Presently, that is steered by right-wing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Patrick, who leads the Senate, has been a regular roadblock to bills attempting to expand medical cannabis and decriminalize possession, which he sees as potential pathways to recreational legalization.
“We previously had votes in the Senate and the House to bring forward a decriminalization bill” in 2019, Sloane said, “but Dan Patrick said it was dead on arrival.”
Most recently, proposals to expand the TCUP program to include patients with chronic pain who might otherwise be treated with opioids, as well as to raise the THC cap to 5%, were stripped out of House Bill 1535 when it reached the Senate.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that during the first eight months of the pandemic, Texas experienced more than a 35% increase in opioid overdose deaths. Meanwhile, several studies suggested a linkage between legalizing cannabis and a reduction in opioid deaths.
“Cannabis has a distinct and potent ability to alleviate pain,” said Melanie Adams, a medical cannabis activist, patient advocate, and legislative consultant based in Fort Worth. “It’s a matter of moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that all chronically ill patients that can benefit from this plant have access to it, not just the limiting conditions that Texas has determined based on politics and not science.”
Cannabis prohibition first started in the United States in El Paso, Texas, and was effectively a way to exert social control over Mexican immigrant workers, who had brought their cultural practice of using cannabis as a medicine with them across the border. It allowed for authorities to have an excuse to search, detain, and deport them at will.
“There were publications stating that marihuana would cause them to rape and pillage or women and things of that nature,” Adams said. “Of course, there is no relevant scientific basis for that propaganda whatsoever.”
The cannabis boogeyman was later used by President Richard Nixon as an excuse to harass protest movements in the 1970s. “They couldn’t arrest you for protesting, but they could arrest you for pot,” Sloane said.
A salacious quote from Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, put it in plain terms. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Today, a racial disparity remains in terms of enforcement of marijuana laws. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report from 2020 showed that Black people are 2.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana charges, despite both races using the plant at nearly equal rates.
But with such overwhelming popular support for reform in Texas, the hopes of advocates appear as high as some of the marchers in downtown Fort Worth, regardless of the obstacles ahead.
“We have strong bipartisan support,” said Jax Finkle, executive director of Texas NORML, “but we have to apply pressure to the lieutenant governor and the Senate to help advance common sense policies. They are cost effective to the taxpayer, will meet the needs of medical patients, and will bring necessary reform to the criminal justice system.”