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Phillip Martin

It’s not easy going green

And by “going green” I mean legalizing pot, at least in Texas.

Zonker

Advocacy groups and lawmakers say marijuana policy reform in Texas could be the fiscally responsible thing to do in light of the state’s decreasing oil and gas revenues.

Texas legislators should look to marijuana policy reform to save, and even make, money in the face of looming budget shortfalls, said SXSW panelist Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, in front of what he called the “wake and bake crowd” Tuesday morning.

“It’s not an ideological barrier,” said Martin. “Anything that’s going to move is going to move because of money.”

The “Turn Texas Green” panel brought legislators and advocates together to to discuss how the Lone Star State could legalize pot for medical or even recreational use.

Zoe Russell, from the Houston nonprofit Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), said some “establishment” Republicans already “see the writing on the wall” with decriminalization policies at the local level. In 2015, Harris County’s Republican DA implemented a “First Chance” policy allowing non-violent offenders with small amounts of marijuana to be ticketed, rather than arrested.

But so far, few statewide elected officials have been willing to put their names on marijuana legislation, Russell said.

“Behind closed doors, they’re really supportive of ideas like this,” Russell told the audience of around 15 or so. “[But] they’re scared of their shadow.”

As Texas’ oil and gas revenues drop dramatically, panelists said the state’s money woes may override the squeamishness many legislators have about legalizing weed.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for Phillip Martin and Progress Texas – the argument that Texas could make some money by legalizing pot and that this would help with the current budget situation is a complete nonstarter. I say this because advocates for expanded gambling, both the slot-machines-at-horse-tracks and the casinos groups, have been making this same argument for well more than a decade and during the budget crunches of 2003 and 2011, and they have nothing to show for it. If there’s one thing we should have learned from those past experiences, it’s that not only is the Republican leadership in this state unreceptive to proposals that would add new revenue streams in Texas, they are actively hostile to them. They’re not interested in more revenue. Budget crunches are to them opportunities to slash spending. It really is an ideological barrier. I don’t see that changing until the leadership we have in Texas changes. I wish that weren’t the case, but I see no evidence to suggest otherwise.

It also pains me to say that even under the most optimistic scenarios, the amount of revenue Texas would likely gain from legalizing and taxing marijuana is way too small to have any effect on a real budget shortfall. The state of Colorado took in $125 million in pot tax revenue in 2015, which sounds like a lot until you remember that the Texas budget is roughly a thousand times bigger than that for a year. This is like saying that Colorado pot revenue is a penny to Texas’ ten dollars. Putting this into a more workable context, $125 of pot tax revenue represents about two percent of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education in the 2011 budget. I’m the first to agree that in a crisis situation, every little bit helps. The point I’m making is that this really would be a little bit.

Which is not to say that there are no economic arguments to be made for at least loosening pot laws, if not outright legalizing it. The case that Texas will spend a lot less money, at the state and county level, with smarter pot laws has some traction and a chance to gain ground. You’re still going to have to overcome the fear that not punishing all these potheads will lead to a spike in crime – it won’t, but you’re going to have to convince some people of that – as well as the strong distaste a lot of people have for pot and the people who indulge in it, but the prospect of spending less will help. (You also have to overcome the fact that some of our legislators are complete idiots, but that’s more of an electoral issue.) Here I think the short-term potential is greater at the county level, since as Harris County has demonstrated some of what can be done is a simple matter of discretion on the part of one’s police department and District Attorney, but the Lege is where it’s at for the longer term, and the real gain. I wish everyone involved in this fight good luck, and I hope we all remembered to vote for candidates who will pursue smarter laws and strategies regarding marijuana in the primaries.