Texas Remains Reluctant to Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use
By Tara Phipps
Keith Ruiz, a young deputy sheriff in Travis County, found himself leading a raid on a mobile home in Del Valle searching for marijuana when the element of surprise was lost.
Then shots in the ongoing war on drugs rang out.
Ruiz was dead. A cop killed, a life lost. All for an ounce of marijuana and barely a larger amount of methamphetamine. His killer was hardly a narcotics kingpin. His stash fit in a small 5-by-7- inch plastic box. That was two decades ago.
The state of Texas has had a puzzling past with marijuana. While the state refuses to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana, it has made small strides in recent years to legalize CBD, hemp and medical marijuana. As the laws become more confusing, some cities — like Austin — have chosen to decriminalize misdemeanor amounts of marijuana.
Of the 50 bills pertaining to marijuana introduced during Texas’ 87th legislation — only HB 1535 made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. This bill expands the number of people eligible for medical marijuana as well as the concentration amount they can have. Bills dealing with penalty reduction or recreational legalization died.
Not only does this lack of action lead to the potential of more senseless killings like that of Keith Ruiz, but it also neglects several benefits that the legalization of recreational marijuana could bring to the state, experts said.
“Two primary benefits of legalizing marijuana would be recreational benefits for the users, and also any sort of tax-related benefits,” said Todd Olmstead, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
States that have legalized marijuana have gained hundreds of millions in tax revenue that goes back into improving the quality of the state. Colorado is a substantial example, making over $300 million in tax revenue in 2020; 10% of this revenue is allocated to local governments. The other 90% is divided so that about 72% goes to the marijuana tax cash fund, which funds healthcare, health education, treatment programs and law enforcement. About 16% goes to general funds and 13% to public schools.
This additional revenue helps the entire population of Colorado, from funding superior public schools to securing pension funds. Tax structures vary across the other 17 states that have legalized recreational marijuana, but one thing remains in common — the added revenue is helping communities across each state.
So what’s the hold up with Texas?
The stigma goes back over 100 years when a man allegedly high on marijuana killed a police officer in Juarez, Mexico. After the story got back to the sheriff in El Paso across the Rio Grade, a campaign was launched against the drug, according to news reports. Since then, the idea that marijuana leads to violence has become embedded in the conversation, and the idea that this drug that leads to violence stems from Mexico has followed the narrative across the decades. This only further drives the stigma in politics, especially when U.S. borders and the war on drugs are still prevalent conversations in the legislature.
Marijuana is becoming increasingly destigmatized for the everyday population, though. According to the Texas Politics Project, about 60% of Texas citizens believe recreational marijuana should be legalized to some degree.
“We have a number of progressive prosecutors in Texas,” said William Kelly, director of the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at UT. “They’ve taken it upon themselves to decriminalize possession.”
He added that it’s a waste of time for police forces to focus on small possession cases, but that legalization in Texas is probably still far off.
“’I’m not convinced the Texas legislature is interested in doing smart things— they’re interested in doing political things,” Kelly said said.
Kendall Bobbitt, a 20-year-old neuroscience major at UT and the co-president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said she believes Texas will legalize marijuana within the next five to 10 years, but it should have already happened. Besides the fact it could make Texas plenty of money, though, Bobbitt also thought it could be helpful to the general population.
“Weed has amazing potential to be used to make life easier on people,” Bobbitt said. “It can help people in pain, who have cancer, who have anxiety — there’s so many benefits to it.”
Bobbitt also brought up another benefit to legalizing weed — limiting the violence in Texas’ backyard.
“If they would legalize it and regulate it then people would smoke real THC — not spice or K2 and be compelled to throw themselves off buildings,” she said, referring to synthetic marijuana.
Beyond that, it would likely reduce the black market violence associated with marijuana, Olmstead explained.
If marijuana was legalized recreationally, Texas could also expand research on the drug which would make it easier to learn about short and long-term effects to better educate the population on a substance they are putting into their bodies anyways.
“Everyone should have the freedom to put whatever they want in their body, but at the same time they need to be educated,” Bobbitt said.
According to news reports at the time, Ruiz’s death was controversial. The 12-year sheriff’s deputy was laid to rest at the end of a televised funeral service and police procession across the entire city of Austin. Questions were raised whether the raids like the one on 23-year-old Edwin Delamora’s trailer was worth a life.
As Texas continues to weigh whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana, there’s more than just the economics to consider.
“The whole war on drugs is a failed policy,” Kelly said. “It’s ridiculous for people to lose their lives over marijuana.”