By: Jarred Gammon
Follow on Twitter: @jarredtgammon

Setting the Stage for Marijuana in Texas: The Power of Public Opinion

Going into the 84th Texas Legislature, Texas was one of 16 states that prohibited marijuana usage – either medically or recreationally. However, there was slightly more chatter this year around marijuana than in previous years because of recent shifts in public opinion. According to a statewide survey conducted by Public Policy Polling in 2013, three out of five Texans support making marijuana legal for adults. A more recent poll from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune found that 49 percent of Texans would legalize marijuana for any purpose.

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How Did Marijuana Fair in the 84th?

The boldest piece of marijuana legislation proposed was House Bill 2165, by Tea Party Republican Rep. David Simpson of Longview, which would have legalized marijuana use for adults in Texas. This included taxing the substance and regulating it similarly to alcohol. “I don’t believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that government needs to fix,” stated Rep. Simpson.

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The bill passed the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee with a vote of 5-2. Voting in favor of the measure were three Democrats and two Republicans, thus demonstrating bi-partisan support for the bill. However, the bill stalled out in the Calendars Committee and was never heard on the House floor. See case study below.

There was also a push to lessen the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, as supporters of Rep. Joe Moody’s House Bill 507 pointed to the large percentage incarcerations in Texas that stem from such charges. But this bill was also left pending in Calendars.

There were successes, however. Senate Bill 339 allows the state to regulate the use of oils derived from marijuana to treat epilepsy patients in Texas. Governor Abbott signed the bill into law, which many consider a step in the right direction for marijuana reform.

BuzzGraph of Marijuana Discussion

BuzzGraph of Marijuana Discussion

Case Study: Splitting the Conservative Base

Marijuana supporters ran with the polling data and tried to create a sense of urgency in Texas, while opposition trusted that the historic ban on marijuana would hold once again. But more so than any other issue, marijuana brought together unlikely allies and created factions amongst Texas conservatives.

Heather Fazio, Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, believes marijuana’s prohibition days are numbered in the Lone Star State, noting how voters “recognize that punishing adults for consuming a substance that is safer than alcohol is a waste of law enforcement resources and an affront to individual liberty.” These reasons for supporting marijuana seem to align closely with conservative ideals, however mainline conservatives have long opposed legalizing marijuana on social and moral grounds, which makes this issue so interesting.

But while traditional Republicans backed marijuana prohibition for public safety reasons, reducing access to the substance by children, and keeping with tradition, the Tea Party Republicans focused on individual liberty, limited government, and personal responsibility, which helps to highlight the distinct factions among Texas conservatives.

The religious appeal cited by Rep. Simpson is somewhat of a new development in Texas. This session the Tea Party championed the “Christian case” for marijuana, stating that it was put here by God, and therefore should not be regulated by the government. This is another potential threat to the mainstream conservative base – which is deeply religious in its views – for opposing legalization of marijuana.

Additionally, the potential tax revenue (read about Colorado’s tax revenue) generated by House Bill 2165 should have spoken to the fiscal conservatives, who pushed for reducing taxes across the state this session.

Twitter Community Mapping

One of our favorite analytic tools is community mapping, which identifies the online influencers around a specific issue or set of keywords, groups those influencers into similar categories (Dallas media outlets for example), and then plots the relationships among those groups (which considers engagement and discussion of similar issues).

When pulling the community map around marijuana-related legislation filed this session, we gain new insight into how the lines are drawn in the sand.

Community Map around Marijuana Legislation

Community Map around Marijuana Legislation

 

The most obvious takeaway is that pro-marijuana advocates (the blue group) are dominating the online discussion, however they are not engaging with Texas legislators in a meaningful way. Notice how the blue group is isolated to the right of the map.

Another takeaway is that many of the Twitter community groups are specific to a major city in Texas, like Austin/San Antonio (orange), and Houston (red). These groups include reporters, media outlets, and local legislators.

But the real takeaway here is that our community map highlights the factions in the Republican Party. The purple group on the community map includes social conservatives like Governor Abbott, US Senator Ted Cruz, former Governor Rick Perry, and the Texas GOP. These powerful Texas conservatives wield a lot of power and oppose extensive marijuana reform.

The brown group includes Tea Party Rep.’s Jason Isaac and David Simpson, moderate Republicans like House Speaker Joe Straus, and Democrats like Rep. Joe Moody and Rep. Carol Alvarado. We even find the Tarrant County Tea Party in the mix! Most members of this group have been outspoken in making the case for or starting the discussion about the usage of medical marijuana, marijuana decriminalization, and legalization, and that is why we find them categorized together. Quite a hodge podge of political groups, eh?

Let’s recap. On one side of the issue we find social conservatives. On the other, Democrats, Libertarians, fiscal-conservatives, and Tea Party Republicans. So why wasn’t there more movement on this issue during session? Social conservatives hold powerful seats at the Texas Capitol.

Still, marijuana was a big winner this session and achieved unprecedented progress. You can bet that this issue will be a fun one to watch in the interim and throughout next session.

This is precisely why the work Influence Opinions does is important – marrying digital and social media communications and analysis with on the on-the-ground, traditional public affairs tactics to maximize campaign effectiveness and improve the likelihood of a legislative “win.” To learn more, contact us at 512.288.4054 or email jarred@influenceopinions.com.