Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke may be trailing two-term incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott by seven points in a recent poll, but the challenger has continued to push a pro-cannabis stance as one means to gain ground.
O’Rourke, who served as a U.S. representative for Texas from 2013 to 2019, and was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, has said that if he’s elected the governor of Texas in the November 2022 election, he’ll work to legalize cannabis in the state.
He reaffirmed that position March 12 during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, suggesting that the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature would back him on the issue, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
“I’ll let you in on a secret: Republicans like to get high just as much as Democrats,” O’Rourke said, speaking during a SXSW panel.
Cannabis legalization has become a popular political platform in recent years amidst growing public support, and Texas is no exception. According to a November 2021 survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, 67% of Texans support legalizing adult-use cannabis.
But O’Rourke began backing and advocating for reform before it was popular.
In January 2009, as a member of the El Paso City Council, O’Rourke sponsored a resolution calling for the repeal of ineffective cannabis laws. He asked his colleagues to “support an open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.” While the council was unanimous in support of that resolution, it was vetoed by then-Mayor John Cook.
In 2011, O’Rourke co-authored the book, Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, which in part argues in favor of legalizing cannabis. This notable political stance was highlighted by The Dallas Morning News in his 2018 U.S. Senate run against Texas incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
Also during his unsuccessful 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, O’Rourke called for expungements for those with arrests records and sentences related to small possession amounts of cannabis.
Along his current campaign trail for governor, O’Rourke recently said, “Legalizing marijuana is the right thing to do. We can stop locking Texans up for a substance that’s legal in much of the rest of the country and allow police to focus on violent crime.”
Abbott also has shown support for reform, specifically signaling that he favors decriminalization policies during a January campaign stop in Edinburg.
Under current Texas laws and penalties, possessing 2 ounces or less of cannabis is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days of incarceration and a max fine of $2,000, according to advocacy group NORML.
While O’Rourke indicated Saturday at SXSW that he’d have Texas GOP backing for adult-use legalization, a recent expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program showed a more conservative approach to reform from current state legislators.
House lawmakers intended on raising the THC limit for medical cannabis from 0.5% to 5% last year, but Senate lawmakers lowered that increase to 1% in the final version of House Bill 1535, which Abbott signed into law in June.
That program expansion, which added cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder as qualifying conditions, went into effect in September 2021.
Today, Texas is one of 13 states remaining in the U.S. that has yet to fully legalize medical cannabis without low-level THC restrictions.