Monday, February 6, 2023 Feb 6, 2023
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The High Hopes of Dallas’ Marijuana Advocates

DFW NORML is training citizen-activists to lobby for the legalization of cannabis in Texas. First step: don’t look like a pothead.
By Farraz Khan |

This isn’t what I was expecting. An assembly of self-identifying potheads is supposed to be a contact high waiting to happen, or a scene straight out of a Cheech & Chong movie, or, at least, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Point is, I’m standing here, in the doorway, momentarily stunned.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in February, and DFW NORML, the North Texas chapter of a national nonprofit seeking to reform U.S. marijuana policy, has summoned its ranks to what it calls a lobbyist training. The objective today is to equip its foot soldiers with a nuts-and-bolts legislative education, relationship-building and persuasion strategies, and arguments and stats so they can lobby their reps in Austin and Washington, D.C.

DFW NORML is organizing with an eye toward the next legislative session, beginning in January 2015, when it hopes to see legislation liberalizing the state’s marijuana laws introduced, passed, and signed into law. The training today is designed to allow citizen lobbyists ample time to meet and build  relationships with their reps, to inform and debate them, to apply pressure.

So it makes sense, I suppose, that there is no evidence indicating that I’m entering a room of reefer-ists. Instead, this conference room at Unity Church of Fort Worth (a church!) has the feel of a drab SAT-prep room: pale yellow walls, kinky blue carpet, long tables piled with handouts. Taking my seat, I make a quick pan of the room: no obvious potheads.

As I learn, many of the 30-odd activists present aren’t tokers at all. There are medical-marijuana proponents, like Albert Coates, a heavyset and well-groomed retiree. Decades ago, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he relied on marijuana to alleviate suffering at the end of his life. There are aspiring policy wonks, like a first-year student from Texas A&M University School of Law. He is utterly pragmatic in his tucked-in button-down, viewing prohibition as a dollars-hemorrhaging failure. (He’s so pragmatic, in fact, that he asks—and asks again—that I not use his name.) 

There are political candidates like Mark Greene, a Democrat running for a U.S. House seat from District 12; he mills about the back of the room in a tan suit, a stack of business cards in hand. And, of course, there are libertarians. Floppy-haired and paunchy Ken Stanford is a member of the Tarrant County Libertarian Executive Committee. I’m not surprised when he says, “Marijuana shouldn’t have been criminalized to begin with.” But I am surprised when he discusses prospects. “All the Democrats [in the Texas Legislature] want it legalized—the ones I’ve talked to,” he says. He’s on a first-name basis with a bunch of state reps. “With Republicans, it ranges from full legalization to even stiffer penalties. Most of the establishment Republicans are the ones saying no.” I ask about some of the younger Tea Party reps, like Jonathan Stickland, a 29-year-old first-termer from Hurst. Stanford smiles. I don’t know why.

“The argument is liberty, not cannabis.”

Elisabeth Rodriguez starts the lobbyist-training session. She’s a svelte blonde in a smart blazer and trendy heels. A DFW NORML board member and weed lover, Rodriguez was the one who told me that there’s no such thing as a stereotypical pothead. I’m starting to believe her. Still, she is attuned to how marijuana users are viewed. So after some fundamentals—how the legislative process works, how to find your rep—the session turns to persuasion and, specifically, to conduct and attire. “It’s important that you look the part,” Rodriguez says, “because people look at you differently when you dress up.” I feel a little embarrassed.

Then Rodriguez hits the numbers. DFW NORML’s go-to talking point is that each marijuana arrest costs Texas approximately $10,000 (including prosecution and incarceration). In 2010, more than 78,000 marijuana-related arrests were made, and 97 percent of those were for possession only. Legalizing—and taxing—marijuana would mean savings, but also new revenue. There’s talk of medical marijuana, industrial hemp, incarceration rates, even border safety. But there’s no mention of choice, of the freedom to use marijuana recreationally. Perhaps liberty follows economics.

Bouncing around the back of the room is DFW NORML’s executive director (and, too, a fervent devotee of the devil’s lettuce), Shaun McAlister. He’s slim and springy, with a manicured mustache-goatee. McAlister became the head of DFW NORML in 2011. Since then, its membership has ballooned to about 400, making it, by his estimate, one of the largest chapters in the country. That growth can be attributed, in no small part, to Colorado and Washington state, which both legalized marijuana by ballot initiative in 2012. This February, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper projected $1 billion in marijuana sales in the next fiscal year, producing $134 million in tax revenue. 

But something’s stirring in Texas, too. In October 2013, a poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project showed 58 percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana, and taxing and regulating it like alcohol. You might take those numbers with a pinch of salt, given the source. But a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in February  found that 49 percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana; 28 percent more would legalize medical marijuana. And, in January, even staunchly Republican Governor Rick Perry seemed to speak in favor of decriminalization at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

McAlister feels the momentum and is optimistic: “For the first time since prohibition, we are winning the battle.” And, yet, that feeling of possibility is tempered with impatience. Colorado and Washington proved that legalization isn’t a pipe dream. You sense urgency in McAlister and Rodriguez, in all the citizen activists in this room. If this is ever going to happen, it has to happen now. But there’s that bedeviling doubt: can it happen in Texas?

That’s when Jonathan Stickland—the Tea Party rep—walks in, a coup de grace to my every preconception of this subject. He was invited by Stanford—the libertarian—to speak about building a relationship with one’s rep. Stickland brings a new energy to the meeting. All these potheads and would-be pothead-enablers are jazzed to see the conservative Christian Republican.

For a few minutes, Stickland discusses how to get in with legislators, by building a personal relationship, by talking about more than one issue, by being someone the rep can trust. He echoes Rodriguez, albeit less gracefully: “The more normal you can seem, the more rational you can seem, the better—because it’s an interesting issue. You have to be professional about it. You have to look presentable. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is.”

Then Stickland wades into the discussion of marijuana policy. “The real problem we’re fighting is that government tells us what we should do.” All around me, heads are nodding emphatically. “We are very close to doing something in this state on this issue,” Stickland continues. “People are hungry to talk about liberty again. This issue is about liberty, about personal responsibility, and we will win that argument, but we have to be careful how we mold that argument. ”

The room is riveted.

“The argument is liberty, not cannabis.”

The group bursts into applause. In this roomful of impassioned marijuana advocates, the first person to ostensibly trumpet the freedom to smoke is the one on Jesus’ team. I could be surprised. But I’m getting used to expecting the unexpected.