The governor of Texas said on Monday that he doesn’t believe people should be incarcerated over low-level marijuana possession, effectively endorsing decriminalization on the same day that Austin officials certified a ballot initiative to enact the reform on the local level. But he also went on to incorrectly suggest that lawmakers have already adopted the policy statewide.
It’s not the first time that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has expressed support for moderate cannabis reform, but it’s a notable remark from a Republican governor nonetheless. Pressed about broader cannabis legalization at a campaign press event, Abbott emphasized that Texas is “making steps in that regard” to decrease marijuana penalties, though he misstated the current law.
“Marijuana is now a Class C misdemeanor in the state of Texas and so one thing that that I believe in—and I believe the state legislature believes in—and that is prison and jail is a place for dangerous criminals who may harm others, and small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with,” he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX): “Small possession of marijuana is not the type of violation that we want to stockpile jails with.” pic.twitter.com/rnk7YWBCF7
— The Recount (@therecount) January 10, 2022
Advocates were quick to point out that Abbott mischaracterized Texas’s marijuana policy, as possession of up to two ounces of cannabis actually remains a Class B misdemeanor—not class C—that carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine.
A Class C misdemeanor would be punishable by up to a $500 fine without the threat of jail time, a policy that activists often refer to as decriminalization.
Abbott made similar comments during a debate in 2018, saying, “One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana.”
“I would be open to talking to the legislature about reducing the penalty for [marijuana] possession of two ounces or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor,” he said at the time.
The Texas House went on to approve a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session and never made it to Abbott’s desk due to the opposition of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who controls the chamber’s agenda.
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The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.
Still, advocates say the new comments from the governor, who is up for reelection this year, signal a bipartisan consensus that’s building around reform.
“Elected officials in Texas—both Democrats and Republicans—agree that we should no longer arrest people for small amounts of marijuana,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “It’s a waste of resources, it unfairly derails lives, and it’s time for the legislature to take action so law enforcement can focus on real crime.”
Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman and El Paso City Council member, is running for governor this year and supports full marijuana legalization.
Hours before the Abbott’s comments on Monday, a progressive group called Ground Game Texas announced that Austin officials had certified an initiative to place cannabis decriminalization on the city’s May ballot.
Activists said that they turned in more than 33,000 signatures for the measure—about 10,000 more than required to qualify for the May 7 election. The city clerk’s office said that, according to its internal review of the validity of the submissions, “the petition is determined to be sufficient.”
The group also told Marijuana Moment on Monday that they will be launching signature campaigns for cannabis decriminalization initiatives in Killeen and Harker Heights this month, and activists in San Marcos began a similar campaign in September. Those three efforts are aimed at putting marijuana reform before voters in November.
While there’s no statewide ballot process in place for citizen initiatives in Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the state legislature during last year’s session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
A bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and another to require a study into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics for military veterans were enacted. Abbott signed the former but let the other become enacted without his signature
Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.
A Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.