Legal in Texas? Backer of Colorado pot initiative pitching lawmakers

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist DEREK RASOR

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on November 21, 2012 at 7:21 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 21 at 7:41 PM

AUSTIN -- On the streets of Austin, you'll hear plenty of arguments in support of legal pot.

"It can be taxed; it will help the government," said one Austin resident who said she would fully support legislation legalizing marijuana. Another common argument made by supporters, "It's a natural herb."

"It has medicinal qualities; it can be helpful relaxing people," said Austinite Owen O'Brien. "And I think that it could also bring the state some income."

But outside Texas' liberal-minded capital, the issue is a much tougher sell. Josh Schimberg knows perhaps better than anyone, as executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"It's been daunting for sure, and it's a steep uphill battle," said Schimberg.

Several bills proposing easing restrictions on marijuana have been submitted to past Texas Legislatures, including decriminalization legislation filed by State Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston) and patient affirmative defense legislation filed by State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, none of which ever made it to a vote.

Schimberg says the last session saw increased efforts from citizens and volunteers to reach out to lawmakers through phone calls and letter-writing, but Republican leadership continues to view the issue of marijuana law reform with "scorn."

The states of Colorado and Washington passed landmark decriminalization initiatives in the most recent election, and Schimberg says the resulting shockwaves are reaching Texas and beyond.

"On a worldwide stage we've already seen leaders with Latin American countries discussing this," said Schimberg. "On a Texas stage, what it does is increase the conversations that we have going on within the state about how legalization potentially could help Texas in terms of keeping people out of jail, saving taxpayer dollars and saving people the trouble of having their lives destroyed for a minor marijuana offense."

The Colorado effort was spurred along by $2.3 million in ads on television and radio paid for by the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, led by executive director and former Austin resident Rob Kampia. The campaign began a year and a half ago, and ended with a victory for Kampia's organization.

"All of these efforts start as losing efforts, and then they eventually win," said Kampia, who says his donor-funded organization and super PAC contributed 95 percent of the financial support for Colorado Proposition 64. "We're seeing a surge of legislators wanting to introduce similar bills."

Kampia's efforts have now turned to other states, in particular Maine and Rhode Island, where he says popular support for similar initiatives has been steadily rising. Kampia places New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Alabama and California on the short list of states most likely to consider action on marijuana.

Despite established resistance from the state's conservative leadership, Kambia insists Texas is in play as well, although the mechanics of the state's legislative process makes a major change to marijuana laws far more difficult than in Colorado.

"Comparing Colorado and Texas is like apples and oranges because Colorado has the ballot initiative process and Texas does not," explained Kampia. "So with Texas we have to go throught the state legislature, and that's more difficult because politicians are more afraid of the marijuana issue than voters are when they're voting on it in private."

Marijuana law reform recently gained the support of the Texas Democratic Party, which officially added support of decriminalization to its state party platform. Kampia says he's also spoken with at least one GOP state lawmaker who's expressed interest in a bill that would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, suggesting perhaps a sign of changing attitudes.

"He is supportive of the issue, although he has not made any claims that he is going to introduce a bill. But we would sure like to see him introduce a bill," said Kampia, who's under no illusions of what the likely outcome would be. "It will not pass, but it will stimulate a debate across the entire state."

Schimberg says Texas NORML has also increased efforts to reach out to Republican lawmakers on a precinct level, hoping to frame the issue as one that is fiscally conservative in nature.

"The real fiscal conservative thing to be doing with marijuana is to allow the market to handle it," said Schimberg. "Allow it to be legal, regulated, for adults only. Get the tax money, save tax money on law enforcement and incarceration and it would be a benefit for everybody."

While legal pot has plenty of supporters in Austin, many aren't exactly optimistic that Texas will follow Colorado, at least any time soon.

"It'll be a process," said O'Brien. "It will take awhile, I'm not sure Texas is ready yet."

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