Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Al Schlieske.
Hey, Texplainer: If the Texas Republican Party platform supports marijuana decriminalization, how can Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick say it’s dead in the Senate? Are party platforms not binding for elected officials?
A few weeks ago, after the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would lower the criminal penalties for Texans possessing small amounts of marijuana to the same classification as a traffic ticket, Patrick said in a tweet that the bill was effectively dead in the Senate. But those comments — from a Republican — don’t mesh with the Texas Republican Party’s platform, which calls for decriminalization and expanding which Texans qualify for medicinal marijuana.
The whole ordeal left some pro-marijuana Republicans asking, “What happened?”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said John Baucum, political director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. “When we’re block walking, we’re supporting the ticket from the top to the bottom, and in essence, we’d expect them to support the party platform from the top to the bottom.”
Here's the thing: Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have ways to enforce elected officials' adherence to platform planks; rather, the planks that are added every two years are a window into where the state parties stand ideologically. A spokesman for the Texas Republican Party declined to comment, and Patrick's office did not respond to requests for comment.
“Party platforms are not legal documents, or not contracts, so to speak — they’re statements of values to the party,” said Glen Maxey, legislative director for the Texas Democratic Party and a former state representative. “Each political party, through some mechanism, adopts these values statements about what the party believes in.”
The Democratic Party's platform also has several planks that support expanding marijuana use in Texas.
But not everyone's on board. The Texas Police Chiefs Association has consistently spoken out against marijuana decriminalization.
"Texas police officers are currently and regularly employing proper discretion and procedural justice to not over-criminalize someone for possession of a personal use amount of marijuana," said Steve Dye, who leads the association's committee monitoring marijuana legislation. "We must understand that modern-day marijuana is much more potent than ever before due to the increased THC levels, which has now made it a very addicting and damaging drug."
The association is also opposed to expanding access to medical marijuana unless "validated, peer-reviewed" research shows there's a medical benefit. House Bill 3703 from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, would expand which Texans with certain medical conditions are eligible for using medical cannabis oil. The Senate unanimously passed it Wednesday, and it now requires one more stamp of approval from the House before it heads to the governor's desk.
The decriminalization bill, House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, would lower possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. Those found to possess 2 ounces or less — but more than 1 ounce — would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, jail time or both. After Patrick's comments, HB 63 died in the Senate.
Last year, Baucum and allies — like Texas Young Republicans and the Republican Liberty Caucus — succeeded in getting a plank added to the party’s platform that is similar to HB 63. After years of grassroots activism by the pro-marijuana Republican groups since at least 2014, nearly 80% of the convention’s 9,000 delegates — some of the most impassioned Republicans in Texas — supported that plank.
The 2018 Texas GOP platform also supports:
Moving marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance — alongside heroin and LSD — to Schedule 2, which would put it in the same boat as morphine and oxycodone.
Expanding the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to give doctors more power to determine when it’s best to prescribe cannabis to certified patients.
Heather Fazio, director of the nonpartisan Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, worked closely with Baucum and other Republicans to get pro-marijuana language into the party platform last year.
Fazio said it’s been “appalling” to see Senate leadership try to kill the legislation that she and her allies worked so hard to instill in the party’s platform last year.
“It’s more of a reflection of his opinions than the opinions of the Senate, and that’s what’s so disappointing," Fazio said.
One more thing about the Texas GOP platform: It has an accountability plank that leaves elected officials “responsible for implementing” what positions party delegates have chosen at the last convention. That should solve all these pesky enforcement problems, right?
Well, not really.
“Unfortunately, it really has no weight on enforcing the Legislature to implement those changes,” Baucum said. “It’s great that we’re coming together to say that these are the things that we believe in strongly, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean the politicians and elected officials have to support them.”
It’s not just marijuana, either. Baucum cited several other issues on which elected Republicans — even state leaders — have bucked their party’s platform. Take, for instance, “constitutional carry.” The Texas GOP platform supports legislation that would allow gun owners throughout the state to carry openly or concealed without a permit. Yet state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, pulled his constitutional carry bill this session after news broke that a hardline gun activist had tried to visit the homes of several House leaders.
It’s a similar story on abortion. The party platform calls for elected officials to pass laws that would abolish abortion in the state and encourages state leaders to “ignore and refuse to enforce” federal law and court orders that “deprive an unborn child of the right to life.” Yet bills that take a hardline approach on abortion haven’t gained much traction this legislative session.
The bottom line: Just like any other elected official, Patrick isn't bound to adhere to his party's platform on marijuana or any other issue. The parties have no teeth for enforcement, and platforms should be seen as windows into where the parties are ideologically rather than binding documents.