Most Texans Want To Legalize Marijuana. Why Doesn't Greg Abbott Listen to Them?

The governor, like Republican politicians in other red states where support for legalization is surprisingly strong, does not seem to think it is risky to defy public opinion.


A new poll finds that 55 percent of Texas voters favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use. That's down a bit from the 60-percent support measured last spring, but it is still a pretty striking result in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats, control the state legislature, and occupy all statewide elected offices.

As you might expect, there was a big partisan gap in support for legalization. The survey, which The Dallas Morning News conducted this month in collaboration with the University of Texas at Tyler, found that 65 percent of Democrats wanted to legalize recreational marijuana, compared to 63 percent of independents and 43 percent of Republicans. Forty-eight percent of Republicans opposed legalization, while 9 percent offered no opinion.

National polling finds similar differences. In the most recent Gallup poll, 68 percent of respondents favored legalization. That majority included 50 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of independents, and 83 percent of Democrats. An SSRS survey conducted in April found that 54 percent of Republicans thought recreational use should be legal, compared to 78 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of independents.

Current Texas law is far from the policies that most respondents in the Dallas Morning News poll said they support. Although 72 percent of respondents, including two-thirds of Republicans, thought medical use of marijuana should be legal, Texas allows patients access only to cannabis products with negligible THC. Possessing two ounces or less of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. Selling more than seven grams (about a quarter of an ounce) is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Penalties for cannabis concentrates are much more severe. Simple possession of less than a gram is subject to the same felony penalties as selling more than seven grams of flower. The penalties for possessing concentrates quickly escalate after the one-gram threshold is reached: The maximum is 10 years for one to four grams and 20 years for four to 400 grams. More than that triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum and a maximum sentence of life.

That draconian scheme can lead to absurdly punitive results, such as the 10-year mandatory minimum that a 19-year-old in Round Rock initially faced in 2014 after he was caught with a pound and a half of hash brownies and cookies. Because Texas counts "adulterants and dilutants" as part of a drug's weight, those THC treats qualified as more than 400 grams of concentrate.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is running for reelection this year, supports downgrading low-level marijuana possession to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a $500 fine. But otherwise, he sees nothing wrong with the way Texas treats cannabis consumers and the people who supply them.

Texas is not the only red state where support for legalization is surprisingly strong. Recent surveys put support at 54 percent in Iowa, 58 percent in Louisiana, and 60 percent in North Carolina.

Last month in Missouri, where a legalization initiative will be on the ballot in November, a Survey USA poll found that 62 percent of registered voters thought recreational marijuana use should be legal. In Arkansas, where voters will consider a similar measure, a Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll conducted in February found that 54 percent of likely voters thought marijuana should be "legal for adults," compared to 32 percent who said it should be legal only for medical use and 11 percent who thought it should not be legal at all. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from 2001 to 2003, opposes the legalization initiative and has urged law enforcement agencies to "stand firm" against it.

Two years ago in South Dakota, 54 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that would have legalized recreational marijuana. Last November, in response to a lawsuit backed by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, the South Dakota Supreme Court overturned that initiative, concluding that it violated the state's "single subject" rule for constitutional amendments. Reformers are trying again this year.

On the face of it, politicians like Abbott, Hutchinson, and Noem are defying the will of the majority, which you might think would be risky. A Mason Dixon poll conducted the month before the South Dakota Supreme Court nixed recreational legalization found that just 39 percent of registered voters approved of the way Noem had handled marijuana policy, while 51 percent disapproved. But pro-legalization voters do not necessarily prioritize that issue.

The stark contrast between states like Texas and the growing number of states that have legalized marijuana could make the issue more salient to voters, since it underlines the injustice of arresting and incarcerating people for conduct that many jurisdictions do not consider a crime. The same vape cartridges that state-licensed pot stores sell in Denver, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas could earn you a prison sentence in Fort Worth. If more voters viewed that situation as an outrage instead of a fun fact, politicians like Abbott might pay more attention to public opinion.