When Texas voters hit the polls in November, they’ll face a choice between two U.S. Senate candidates who have significantly divergent views on marijuana and are facing off in one of the nation’s most-watched races, the result of which could determine whether Democrats or Republicans end up controlling Congress’s upper chamber.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) is taking on incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is running for a second term. Polling reveals a surprisingly tight race—with O’Rourke behind by about four points on average—and while marijuana isn’t exactly center stage for either campaign, it’s clear how the candidates differ on the issue.
O’Rourke wants to end the federal prohibition of cannabis and create a legal, regulated system to deter youth consumption while stripping criminal enterprises of profits. He also supports expunging the criminal records of people who’ve been convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses.
When it comes to underage use, O’Rourke has voiced concerns about marijuana’s potential impact on cognitive development. In a road trip campaign video from last year, he said that all of the solutions to that problem were “bad,” but the “least bad” solution was legalization and regulation.
The congressman has also supported various pieces of marijuana-related legislation during his time in the House, including measures that would expand cannabis research, prevent federal interference in legal states and increase access to medical marijuana for veterans. He is also the lead sponsor of a bill that would repeal a law that reduces highway funding for states that don’t automatically suspend drivers licenses for people convicted of drug offenses.
Taken together, it’s no surprise that O’Rourke would receive an endorsement for his Senate run from NORML’s political action committee. In a press release, NORML PAC executive director Erik Altieri said the Democratic nominee “has been a true champion for abolishing our disastrous prohibition on marijuana since the very beginning of his political career as a city council member in El Paso.”
“As Senator, O’Rourke will be an outspoken and indispensable ally in reforming our federal laws relating to marijuana and fight to finally end our failed prohibitionist policies that are currently tearing apart families, oppressing communities of color, squandering countless tax dollars, and filling the coffers of criminal cartels.”
The organization gave O’Rourke a B+ grade in its congressional scorecard.
O’Rourke has been a vocal supporter of marijuana policy reform since years before he entered Congress, for example speaking at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.
On a lighter note, O’Rourke made headlines this summer when he performed the marijuana-themed song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” on stage with fellow Texan Willie Nelson.
O’Rourke has also found a friend in Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), another pro-legalization lawmaker who supports the congressman’s bid to de-seat Cruz.
My friend & colleague @BetoORourke understands what's at stake with dangerous & unfair marijuana policies. A message I've carried around the country, but nothing beats hearing it from a high profile candidate like Beto as he takes on Ted Cruz.https://t.co/oQPFyz2QZa
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) August 30, 2018
Speaking of Cruz, the incumbent senator has taken a decidedly federalist approach to marijuana, saying that while he personally wouldn’t vote for any state referendum to legalize cannabis, he believes that it’s the “prerogative” of voters to decide on the issue at the state level without federal interference.
“The people of Colorado have made a different decision. I respect that decision.“
“It is an opportunity for the rest of the country to see what happens here in Colorado, what happens in Washington state, see the states implement the policies,” Cruz said in April 2016 in the midst of his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that year. “If it works well, other states may choose to follow. If it doesn’t work well, other states may choose not to follow.”
And while Cruz has received a “C” grade from NORML for his hands-off position on state marijuana legalization efforts, he hasn’t signed his name onto a single piece of cannabis reform legislation during his time in the Senate.
He’s also attempted to undermine his opponent throughout the campaign by criticizing O’Rourke’s drug policy reform platform.
Specifically, the senator has taken comments O’Rourke made during his time as a member of the El Paso City Council out of context and leveraged those comments to suggest that his opponent supports legalizing all drugs, including heroin.
With opioids ravaging so many American communities, Congressman Beto O’Rourke's radical resolution to legalize all narcotics—including heroin and other deadly opioids—is looking worse and worse all the time: https://t.co/VdwaYMccMn #TXSen
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 1, 2018
The “radical resolution” Cruz referenced wasn’t actually a resolution in favor of legalization itself; rather, O’Rourke floated the idea of simply considering ending prohibition as an amendment to a 2009 City Council measure focused on curbing violence near the U.S.-Mexico border. PolitiFact rated Cruz’s tweet as “false.”
“It was an artless, and even inaccurate amendment to the larger resolution (I only learned later that marijuana is not a narcotic, even though it was precisely that drug that I felt people would be most open to debating), but it got the point across,” O’Rourke wrote in his 2011 book, Dealing Death and Drugs. He continued:
“I knew we were addressing a taboo topic, one that conventional wisdom dictated that only potheads, hard-core libertarians and political suicides ever brought up. But I also knew that Juarez had gone beyond the pale and it was time to place all options on the table, even those that had been unthinkable, for me as well as others, just a year ago.”
Even so, Cruz’s team put out a political ad that seems meant to look like O’Rourke personally endorses the legalization of all narcotics.
.@TedCruz also has a new TV ad contrasting his work on unemployment drug testing with @BetoORourke's 2009 comments about the war on drugs (Background: https://t.co/cLxvNdigIs). #txsen pic.twitter.com/leVOnazXaN
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) August 3, 2018
The ad also notes Cruz’s support for legislation mandating drug testing for individuals seeking federal unemployment benefits.
It’s not the first time O’Rourke’s push to debate legalization has been used by political opponents. But when former U.S. Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX) tried to convince voters that O’Rourke’s resolution amendment meant he was for legalizing all drugs during their 2009 Democratic primary race, it seemed to backfire.
Reyes had personally lobbied the El Paso City Council to defeat O’Rourke’s proposal, a move that angered the councilman so much that three years later he ran against the congressman in a Democratic primary.
Voters chose the challenger over the incumbent for the nomination, clearing the path for O’Rourke’s rise to Congress. Of course, a congressional primary election in a Democratic-leaning district in 2009 doesn’t exactly provide a clean parallel to a 2018 statewide Senate race in Texas, and Cruz seems to be betting that similar anti-drug messaging will serve him better in November than it did Reyes.
It’s not clear to what extent each candidate’s marijuana stance will influence how Texans vote in the midterm election, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind going into November. Sixty-one percent of Texas voters favor ending federal cannabis prohibition, compared to just 34 percent who oppose it, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University survey.
Even the Texas Republican Party endorsed marijuana decriminalization and expansion of the state’s current limited medical cannabis law during their June conference.
And while Cruz’s federalist perspective on the issue distinguishes him from other hardline prohibitionists in Congress, it seems increasingly clear that even in red states like Texas, where no Democrat has been elected to statewide office in decades, marijuana has become a political mainstay.
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.