Pubdate: Tue, 20 May 2014
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Tim Eaton
Page: A1


Marijuana Supporters Encouraged by Politicians' Comments.

Democrats want to turn Texas blue. Republicans want to keep it red.
Now, members of a new advocacy group in Austin have something else in
mind: They want to make Texas green.

The Washington, D.C.based nonpartisan organization isn't blowing smoke
about environmental causes. Rather, the Marijuana Policy Project sees
an opening to loosen marijuana laws in Texas, following recent
comments by Gov. Rick Perry and other state politicians.

Heather Fazio, the newly installed Texas political director of the
Marijuana Policy Project, said she, a lobbyist and several volunteers
will work toward passing state laws that would permit the use of
medical marijuana, decriminalization of the controlled substance and
eventually allowing adults to possess small amounts of marijuana.
Similar efforts will be made in several other states.

The group has a $200,000 budget that will stretch through the 2015
legislative session. The ultimate goal is for the state to treat
marijuana more like liquor. It could be taxed and regulated, Fazio

"We are seeing this movement really happening," Fazio said. "We want a
safe and legal market."

Fazio said she hopes that Texas will follow the path of other states
that have recently relaxed their marijuana laws.

She pointed to Colorado as a model. Officials in the Rocky Mountain
state said recently that dispensaries there sold nearly $19 million
worth of recreational marijuana in March, up from about $14 million
the month before. Through three months of allowing retail recreational
pot, the state has earned $7.3 million in taxes. That figure doesn't
include medical marijuana sales taxes or licensing fees, which bring
Colorado's haul to about $12.6 million.

State lawmakers in Colorado this month approved a plan to spend
marijuana taxes mostly on child drug use prevention and outreach. The
$33 million plan includes money for more school nurses and public
education on using marijuana responsibly.

Reluctance to change laws

In Texas, the Marijuana Policy Project has been buoyed by recent
statements from top state officials.

Citing remarks from Perry and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy
Davis, the Marijuana Policy Project's website says that Texas'
"current leadership and candidates for prominent political offices are
increasingly calling for marijuana policy reform in the Lone Star State."

But the support might not be a concrete as the group's leaders

While Davis supports allowing medical marijuana, she also thinks
"Texans should be the decision-makers on the matter," spokeswoman
Rebecca Acuna said.

As for Perry, the Marijuana Policy Project might have misunderstood
comments he made about drug crimes at the World Economic Forum in
Davos, Switzerland, in January, said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for

The governor isn't in favor of legalization or allowing medicinal
marijuana. However, Nashed said, he would like to find alternative
solutions such as rehabilitation and the expansion of state drug
courts for nonviolent drug offenders, as Perry noted at the conference.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for
governor, supports Texas' drug laws but is supportive of diversionary
and rehabilitative programs, spokesman Matt Hirsch said.

Abbott "believes the best methods of combating illegal drug use
include a combination of medical treatment and criminal enforcement,"
Hirsch said. "Legalizing drugs would encourage drug use, which affects
every sector of society, straining our economy, our health care and
criminal justice systems, and endangering the lives of future

Texas has led much of the nation in drug arrests. In 2010, 74,000
people were arrested in Texas for marijuana possession - second only
to New York - about 20,000 more than were arrested in the state a
decade earlier. That increase was among the largest in the country.

Allies in the Legislature?

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, who has filed medical marijuana
bills in the past, says he has the "utmost respect" for the Marijuana
Policy Project, but that Texas lawmakers aren't likely to approve any
kind of legalization, he said.

But Naishtat added that he is hopeful that a bill he plans to file
could gain traction. The measure would set up an affirmative defense
for a sick person who gets arrested for smoking pot, allowing a judge
to legally dismiss the case.

"I'm still not saying it has a good chance, but it has a better chance
than ever before," he said.

On the GOP side, the marijuana policy group might find allies in the
party's libertarian wing.

State Rep. David Simpson, a Longview Republican and leader of the
party's libertarian faction, said he believes people should make their
own health decisions, especially when it comes to "a natural plant
that grows here in Texas," he said. "I support individuals making
their own health care decisions and being responsible for them, and
not the government."

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he and some other of his
conservative colleagues aren't quite ready to turn Texas into another
Colorado. But, he insisted that they are willing to listen to
constituents' concerns and perspectives.

He said, "I could see it becoming more of a discussion as we get
closer to session."
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