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'Changing the face of cannabis'

'Changing the face of cannabis'

Backers of easing medical marijuana laws target rural Texas

June 11th, 2018 by Bob Sechler / Austin American-Statesman in Texas News

Justin Russin, a cultivation technician at Compassionate Cultivation, works Jan. 17, 2018, in a grow room at the facility in Manchaca, Texas.

Photo by Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

AUSTIN—With the sound off, images from a new advocacy video touting the merits of medical marijuana could blend seamlessly into a commercial for the latest model of pickup—a burly Texan, clad in a cowboy hat, strides past bales of freshly cut hay, tinkers with a tractor and even feeds a horse.

The Austin American-Statesman reports the similarity is no coincidence.

Proponents of loosening marijuana prohibitions in the state are mounting a concerted effort to take their message to West Texas and other predominantly rural regions of the state. That's because they concluded in the wake of last year's legislative session that support among lawmakers had less to do with political affiliation than with the proximity of their districts to major urban centers.

"Our real goal is to change the face of cannabis," particularly for West Texans, said Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, the state's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"The stereotype (marijuana user) is the pothead hippie from the '70s," Finkel said. "It's really time to push back on that. People aren't thinking of an active, hardworking person who wants to stay active and hardworking" but requires access to medical marijuana to do so.

A number of high-profile bills that, by varying degrees, would have lifted marijuana restrictions in Texas cleared legislative committees during the 2017 regular session of the state Legislature, but they all died before coming up for a vote in either chamber.

One of those unsuccessful bills—HB 2107, aimed at making "whole plant" marijuana broadly legal in the state for medical purposes—had 78 legislative sponsors, with nearly 40 percent of them Republicans.

"But, basically, there was like this huge gray wall out in West Texas and the Panhandle (and) all the way down to the border," in terms of a lack of support from lawmakers elected from those areas, Finkel said. "So we just think there's a lot of education to be done" in West Texas about medical cannabis and who can benefit from it.

Enter "Richard," the 51-year-old, blue-collar narrator of the new videos produced by the Foundation for an Informed Texas, an educational offshoot of Texas NORML. The group is hoping West Texans and other rural residents will identify with him enough to listen to his message, learn more about medical cannabis and track their representatives' positions on it during the 2019 legislative session.

Richard declined through Texas NORML to provide his full name. Finkel said he's "an authentic medical patient" who relies on cannabis to deal with repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain suffered during a long career in the oil-and-gas industry and the renewable energy sector.

In the videos, he says the issue is one of "medical freedom," because "every Texan should be able to choose remedies that work for them" without interference.

"There's no reason that Texans should have to risk arrest or addiction to opioids in order to get relief" from pain or other medical conditions, he says.

He also emphasizes that the Compassionate Use Act, a narrow medical cannabis law approved by the state Legislature in 2015, doesn't provide any legal access to cannabis products for the vast majority of Texans. The law mandates that such products only contain CBD oil—or cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive extract of both marijuana and hemp—and it limits use to patients suffering from a rare form of epilepsy and under a doctor's direction.

Initial testing of the new videos in West Texas social media markets has garnered positive feedback, Finkel said, and the Foundation for an Informed Texas is hoping to raise about $140,000—on top of $20,000 already raised—for a comprehensive campaign that would run into the 2019 legislative session and include radio and some cable TV spots.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said the effort "makes sense as a political strategy" for advocates of medical cannabis.

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll early last year found that 24 percent of respondents who identified as Republican said that marijuana shouldn't be legal under any circumstances, compared with 13 percent of Democrats who felt that way. But despite the difference, the 76 percent of Republicans willing to consider some level of legalization still represented a large majority of GOP respondents.

"There seems to be pretty good grounds here for a legislative education campaign," Henson said, in terms of letting potential voters know more about the issue and how their local lawmakers stand on it.

Politicians typically are cautious and "reticent to get too far ahead of public opinion" on controversial issues, Henson said. That seems to be the case with aspects of marijuana legalization, he said, because "the Legislature has appeared to be lagging behind public attitudes on this," providing an opening for a strong advocacy campaign to potentially tip the issue.

Finkel's group is still developing its campaign, but one area where it's likely to focus includes the district of state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, who chairs the House Committee on Public Health. Price allowed HB 2107 to come up for a vote in his committee during last year's legislative session, although he opposed it.

His chief of staff, Hal Talton, said Price's office is "studying the issue of medical marijuana this interim" in advance of the 2019 session.

Regardless, Finkel said she's optimistic as her group ramps up its campaign.

"With better education, we think we are going to be able to empower people to better understand what is going on in the upcoming legislative session," she said. "We think we can make this a more deeply penetrating issue, and then people can make decisions for themselves" as to how they feel about their lawmakers' positions on it.

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