AUSTIN, Texas -- The results of a new survey released this week suggests Texans are continuing to relax their attitudes toward marijuana.
A poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune between Feb. 7 and 17 suggests a whopping 77 percent of registered Texas voters believe in some form of legal marijuana. According to the survey, 28 percent are comfortable with easing marijuana restrictions solely for medicinal use.
A full 49 percent of respondents said marijuana should be legal in some quantity, consisting of 32 percent who believe it should be legal in small amounts and 17 percent who believe it should be legal in any amount. Only 23 percent said marijuana should remain illegal in all cases.
"I think it's easy to look at these numbers and be surprised at first," said pollster and professor James R. Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. "But if you look at the trend, that's actually down about four points from the last time we asked this question about four years ago."
"There's always been a tension in Texas between the more restrictive bible belt influences and the western, much more individualist, individual freedom orientation in the state," said Henson. "I think we're seeing that here. This is an area where a lot of Texans, I think, see this as a matter of individual liberty; and no small amount of them perhaps are not pro-legalization, but there has developed a sense of compassion around medical marijuana use."
Austin resident Vincent Lopez has lived with muscular dystrophy for more than two decades, and says marijuana is the only drug effective at relieving his constant pain and muscle spasms without uncomfortable side effects. As director of patient outreach for Texas NORML, Lopez argued for a legal defense for medical marijuana users before the Texas House Public Health Committee in 2013.
"Not many of us have the option to put our condition on the shelf or to act like it's not there," Lopez told KVUE in early February. "We have to face it, and we have to face it dead-on, head-on. And it's in that reality where cannabis can help alleviate that situation by not making it so hard, without being zombified by prescription medications."
The issue of marijuana laws has percolated just below the surface during the 2014 election season. Participating in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in January, outgoing Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) made headlines while attempting to explain Texas' policy of promoting drug courts as alternatives to jail time for those found in possession of small quantities of marijuana.
Later the same month, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson raised eyebrows during a debate between Republican contenders for lieutenant governor as the only candidate to voice support for medical marijuana. Musician and humorist Kinky Friedman hopes to make his latest longshot bid as a Democrat running for Texas Agriculture Commissioner a referendum on marijuana and hemp.
In the race for governor, the top Republican and Democrat have also addressed the issue of medical marijuana to varying degrees.
"I think these are important decisions to be made by the voters of Texas," state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) told KVUE's Houston sister station, KHOU, in early February. "But if this is an issue that the Legislature wants to bring forward for voter consideration, I certainly would be supportive."
"I think that the way Texas enforces the marijuana laws right now is the appropriate action to take," Abbott told KVUE's San Antonio sister station, KENS, on Wednesday. "Texas has been innovative in its approach. We have this drug court procedure. Our focus isn't on spending a lot of money putting people behind bars who are caught with small amounts of marijuana. We want to reserve prisons for the most heinous and dangerous criminals, for drug traffickers, and we want to use drug courts that have innovative practices to try to rehabilitate those who are involved with drugs and try to put them on a productive pathway."
But even with the numbers favoring some form of legalization, will Texas follow California or Colorado any time soon?
"Certainly, there is a conversation going on nationally that Texas is probably a little bit behind, given the bedrock social conservatism of a very mobilized part of the Texas electorate," said Henson. "But you know, the scent of change is in the air."