Medical Marijuana Supporters Look to Conservatives

Last month's greater-than-anticipated electoral gains by the Republican Party of Texas could be interpreted as the death knell for any advance of medical marijuana laws in the 82nd legislative session. But advocates for an affirmative defense bill — including those who earlier this year named Democrats as the most likely sponsors — are holding fast to hopes that the specter of an ever-encroaching government will resonate with Tea Party and like-minded lawmakers when the session convenes in January.

“The Tea Party is definitely on our side as far as medical marijuana goes. This is definitely a good opportunity for us to make alliances and find people within the Republican Party to support our bill,” says Stephen Betzen, the director of the Texas Coalition for Compassionate Care. The Dallas-based organization is lobbying for a bill that would allow a judge or a jury to hear about the medical advice defendants receive from their doctors. It would be ill-advised to label the proposed legislation an effort by liberals, Betzen says, because realistically it’s the most conservative bill out there. And he’s hoping the Texas House and its 99 GOP members see it the same way, despite previously counting as allies more left-leaning members of the Texas House, including the bill's previous sponsor, state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin.

“It’s not so much that we are abandoning [liberals]. Naishtat is going to give us his support, and more liberal people are going to give us their support, or at least I believe they will. But for us to try to get a bill passed while having it labeled as a liberal bill, when in actuality it’s a conservative bill that gets the government out of the position of being between patient [and doctor], is going to make it more difficult politically,” he says. “We have to pass a bill that is written for Texas and by Texans and not some bill that comes out of California or Colorado.”

Naishtat says he is intent on trying to pass a bill again, despite last month's GOP gains. The national trend, he says, is to take a closer look at medicinal marijuana and its benefits. Texas, he believes, will soon follow suit. He cites a Nov. 22 article in Time called “The United States of Amerijuana” as proof the issue has gained steam. “It’s the cover story and it says, ‘Legalization has gone up in smoke, but medicinal pot has gone mainstream.’ Thirteen states have authorized the use of medicinal marijuana, and it’s only a matter of time before Texas does the same,” he contends. Naishtat says he isn’t “overly optimistic” about passing the bill, but that has less to do with Election Day and more to do with Texas being Texas.

“That’s based on past experiences and what the leadership is,” he says.

Betzen says he is looking for continued support from at least one Republican member, state Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton. Jackson has co-sponsored Naishtat’s bill before, his legislative aide confirms, though he has yet to weigh in this go-round. Even if the issue proves too much of a political football next session, Betzen and other advocates can still count on, ironically enough, former law enforcement officials who spent years busting dopers.

“I spent 32 years [fighting the] drug war, the last 15 in Central and South America, so I understand the [global aspect] of it and the fact that we are not going to win it so we might as well change out strategy,” says Terry Nelson, the Granbury representative of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Nelson's long stint working for the federal government includes service with the U.S. Border Patrol, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs. “We are for total legalization, because we want to get the crime and violence out of the drug issue and take the power out of the hands of the cartels,” he says. “You cannot show me any laws for the prohibition of laws that work.”

A card-carrying Republican for more than 30 years, Nelson says current laws prohibiting marijuana use are contributing to the state budget deficit. It’s time to reassess the progress of some of those efforts, he says.

“We have a $25 billion deficit, and it’s got to come out of something,” he says. “Why don’t we do away with programs that don’t work? For example, DARE — it doesn’t work. Prosecuting people for consensual crimes doesn’t work. We could save millions and millions of dollars. And we are not even dealing with the tax revenue you could get from sales of marijuana.”

Some Republicans are intent on banning even fake pot, however, indicating Betzen and his allies may have an exceedingly uphill battle. State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said earlier this year that she intends to file legislation to ban K2, a synthetic substance that mimics the effects of marijuana but is currently legal.

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