Skip to content Skip to footer

Southern States See Movement Toward Marijuana Reform

Some southern states have passed narrow medical marijuana laws this legislative session.

Members of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws protesting during their annual July 4 "smoke-in" in 2000.

States that have passed marijuana reform policies, including decriminalization, medical marijuana and full legalization, have mostly been in the northern half of the United States, with southern states sticking to an outdated tough-on-crime approach — but that may be beginning to change.

Decriminalization and legalization groups in southern states are pushing bills through state legislatures and are beginning to see some victories on medical marijuana bills. Broader marijuana reform policies may become possible in only a few years. But this traction has been garnering little attention, with the national media spotlight mainly focused on legalization in states like Colorado and Washington State.

“What’s happening in other states has been building for a long time before [anyone] heard about it,” said Cheyanne Weldon, the executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “But also, [northern states] operate under a different structure of laws and limitations than what we operate under, and we aren’t alone in that. Texas is not the only state that doesn’t have ballot initiative.”

Decriminalization activists in southern states like Texas are launching campaigns, building coalitions and lobbying state lawmakers in a new national context that has legislators closely observing how legal marijuana impacts Colorado and Washington State. More broadly, lawmakers almost everywhere are talking about how to confront the damage done by the war on drugs, as Attorney General Eric Holder continues to urge legislators to reduce nonviolent drug sentences.

Some southern states have already made narrow changes by passing medical marijuana laws, which according to reform activists, exempt only a very limited group of patients with specific medical conditions from criminal penalties. Other southern states have passed bills to study the medical effects marijuana use, and further, to study the impacts of legalization on Colorado and Washington State. These changes couldn’t have been fathomed by some conservative southern lawmakers even just a few years ago.

In April, Alabama Rep. Mike Ball (R-Madison) and Rep. Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) led a bipartisan coalition toward medical marijuana reform law known as Carly’s Law, named for Carly Chandler, who is 3 years old and has a seizure disorder.

In Florida, legislators passed a limited medical marijuana bill that would exempt only patients with cancer and conditions that result in seizures from criminal laws for using marijuana. The marijuana must be low in Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient — and must be used under certain strict requirements. Gov. Rick Scott has said he’ll sign the bill.

In Georgia this session, Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) brought a medical marijuana bill to a vote of 171-4 in the Georgia House and another version of the bill gained unanimous support in the Senate, but both versions of the bill failed after a standoff between the two chambers over which version should pass. However, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has said that he’ll take a non-legislative route to get the bill passed.

Other southern states with various forms of medical marijuana legislation pending include South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona and New Mexico.

Recently, Louisiana lawmakers passed a bill reforming the way the state handles misdemeanor marijuana possession charge for parolees. The new legislation gives judges the authority to penalize parolees charged with possession with sanctions, rather than mandatory parole revocation.

But one of the biggest pushes on marijuana reform policy is happening in the state of Texas, where public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of reform. In Texas, 72,000 arrests were made for marijuana possession in 2012. According to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report, Black people are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in the state, but the racial disparity is likely much higher, because the data used by the ALCU counts Latinos as whites.

Many advocates in the South don’t oppose traditional tough-on-crime politics; they simply don’t think marijuana possession should be considered a crime. “We want law enforcement to be tough on crime, but we want to save our resources so that they can be tough on real crime where there’s victims that need justice, and not nonviolent pot offenders,” said Heather Fazio, the Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

The Policy Project is working in coalition with various marijuana reform groups on a multiyear campaign in Texas to file and pass three marijuana reform bills in both the Texas House and the Senate, with the ultimate goal of full legalization by 2019. The organization has committed to spend $200,000 a year to push for reform in the state and has hired a contract lobbyist, Randal Kuykendall, who has formerly lobbied for the Texas Municipal Police Association and other law enforcement groups.

Reform activists in Texas are pushing a medical marijuana bill; a decriminalization bill which would impose civil fines for marijuana possession; and a bill to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older, taxing and regulating it similarly to alcohol.

“We no longer need to throw buckshot at the world and hope something hits. There is support already, so now we just need to target,” Weldon said. “If you have a laser, than you don’t use buckshot, you say, ‘What do I really want. Let’s do that.’ “

Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for the decriminalization of marijuana possession in a statement he gave to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, during a panel titled “The Drugs Dilemma.”

“After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade,” Governor Perry said, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

The statement could allow for other conservative lawmakers in the state to follow his lead.

“I loved to hear what [Perry] had to say, not necessarily because I think he is really going to be a huge champion on this issue, but what he’s done is allow for Texas conservative legislators to start talking about the issue and not being afraid of it,” the Policy Project’s Fazio told Truthout.

Precedent for marijuana reform will likely be set by other southern states by the time the 2015 legislative session begins in Texas. But it can’t come soon enough for people who are suffering from chronic illnesses whose symptoms can be alleviated with the use of medical marijuana and for those who continue to be locked up as nonviolent drug offenders — disproportionately people of color.

Teresa Kelley is the caretaker of her 5-year-old granddaughter, who suffers from various diagnoses and chronic seizures. Kelley resigned from her Blue Mountain, Texas, city council seat to take care of her granddaughter full time.

“It’s bullshit, she’s just a child, and she shouldn’t have to take all these medications, not when she could take [cannabis] oil and it’s all natural,” she said. Her granddaughter is one of the many children on Colorado’s medical marijuana registry, which has surged in numbers since 2013. If she is approved, Kelley says her family will move to Colorado, and her granddaughter will become one of Colorado’s many “marijuana refugees.”

“We won’t come back,” Kelley says. “These children should not have to suffer just because the government is stupid. [Sellers] already got the damn patent on [medical strains of marijuana]. They’re going to make their damn money. Let these kids have it.”

Of course, if Texas passes a medical marijuana bill before Kelley’s granddaughter’s name is approved, her family might not have to move after all.

Urgent message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $16,000 before midnight tonight. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.