Democrats bid for agricultural commissioner focuses on marijuana

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The first time Susan Hays tried marijuana she was a “hellish teenager” hanging out with a few dozen friends, drinking beers and swimming until dawn in Pecan Bayou near her hometown of Brownwood.

It was “Mexican hell weed,” Hays recalled in a recent phone interview of the 3 joints his friends bought for $5. She didn’t know then how to smoke properly – to inhale – so she didn’t get high. All he did was put her to sleep in the backseat of the car.

Now Hays is something of a weed evangelist and the Democratic nominee for Texas agriculture commissioner. She has made the expansion, decriminalization and legalization of medical marijuana the centerpiece of her campaign as she seeks to become the first Democrat in 30 years to win statewide office. .

The issue is politically powerful, and the winds of public opinion seem to be blowing in its direction. Although Texas is one of the most restrictive states in the country for access to marijuana, it’s available medicinally in all surrounding states, and it’s fully legal for adult recreational use in neighboring New Mexico and neighboring Colorado. A recent UT/Tyler poll showed that 55% of Texans support legalization and over 70% support medical marijuana.

Incumbent Sid Miller, a Trump-backed Republican who Hays will face in the November election, has also advocated for the expansion of medical marijuana in Texas.

In an op-ed over the summer, Miller said he wants the governor, legislature and others to “come together and put aside our political differences to have an honest conversation about cannabis,” without specify specifically what he is in favor of or how he would like to see the law changed.

“As for the specifics of how to achieve this, I said I’m willing to work with anyone on any idea that gets these products into the right hands – and keeps them out of the wrong hands. This will be the challenge of the next Parliament. I see part of my role as that of an advocate for those who are suffering; I will urge everyone involved not to worry about who gets credit for what – let’s just the job,” Miller said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson.

State records show the hemp industry has struggled to gain a foothold in Texas, with its growth slowed by the pandemic and this year’s severe drought. According to data provided by the Texas Department of Agriculture, 1,138 hemp production licenses were issued in 2020, the first year of the program. Licenses must be renewed each year, and in 2021 the total number fell to 1,109. This year it fell to 581.

Miller responded to questions about it with a statement, “Overall, I believe our hemp program has been a success. Applicants undergo a thorough background check and we have seen a steady increase in interest in the hemp program. As hemp markets grow in Texas and nationally, this will only get bigger.

Hays offers a very clear and detailed view of its preferred policies.

Current Texas law is “bass-ackwards,” she likes to say, with a patchwork of differing state and municipal regulations and confusing, anti-science state laws. Hays believes, after studying deployment in other states, that marijuana policy is a “three-legged stool,” encompassing access to drugs, decriminalization, and legalization. If one leg is neglected, the industry is unstable, she says.

Medical access must be carefully managed to ensure people with health needs can access carefully regulated marijuana products that meet their specific needs, she said. If cultivation has been legalized outright without the medical infrastructure being developed, “stoner-bro culture” creates a system in which dispensaries attempt to outdo each other by making the strongest pot products possible, “like if you went to a liquor store and all you could buy was Everclear,” Hays said.

Decriminalization is important, she says, but if it is not accompanied by legalization, the black market is likely to grow. Many counties in Texas, including most of the largest in the state, have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana, such as Harris, Dallas, Travis and Bexar counties.

Another important element is the packaging, which Hays says should be safe for children and should include detailed information on the chemical composition of the product. Different strains of marijuana (Hays’ favorite is called Acapulco Gold) can have different effects on people when ingested or smoked, for example.

Requiring this information to be displayed on the package allows people to find strains of marijuana that meet their specific needs, Hays says, whether it’s stimulating the appetite of chemotherapy patients, helping veterans fighters struggling with PTSD overcome insomnia or help seniors with chronic arthritis pain. .

A Hemp Corruption Case

A graduate of Georgetown Law School, Hays specialized in marijuana and hemp law for approximately a decade and helped draft the Texas Hemp Act of 2019 which legalizes the growth and production of this crop, which is the basis of the state’s medical marijuana program.

Coincidentally, this change in law also led to a scandal in Miller’s office after his longtime political aide, Todd Smith, was indicted for taking bribes from would-be hemp growers who wanted a state license to grow it.

Under state law, these licenses cost only $100. There is no waiting list or quota, so anyone who meets the requirements can access it. Miller described the hemp program in Texas as a burgeoning success.

But state records show the hemp industry has struggled to gain a foothold in Texas, with its growth slowed by the pandemic and this year’s severe drought. According to data provided by the Texas Department of Agriculture, 1,138 hemp production licenses were issued in 2020, the first year of the program. Licenses must be renewed each year, and in 2021 the total number fell to 1,109. This year it fell to 581.

Smith is accused of asking for thousands of dollars and then pocketing the money. He denied doing anything wrong.

Miller has defended his longtime aide, saying earlier this year that Smith was the subject of a political witch hunt by those who would like to discredit his work as agriculture commissioner. Smith no longer works for Miller, which was a mutual decision, Miller said.

Allegations of wrongdoing against Miller since taking over as agriculture commissioner in 2015 include using department funds for political and personal travel and hiring Smith’s wife for a job of $180,000 in the department in 2015.

In addition to marijuana, Hays has focused his campaign on anti-corruption, accusing Miller of having a tendency to act unethically and trying to gain personal or political strength through his public office.

It was also the main line of attack against Miller from his Republican challengers in the primary earlier this year, challengers whom Miller outright defeated.

The last time a powerful Texas agriculture commissioner was upset in an election was when Jim Hightower lost to Rick Perry in 1990, said University political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. of Houston.

The formula then, he says: “The commissioner has done a worse job than expected at his job, there are personal scandals that have bled into politics, and you have a challenger who presents an alternative.”

“To a certain extent, that’s the lineup for Hays,” Rottinghaus said.

‘Well yeah, I use cannabis’

It’s unclear how marijuana in Texas would go from where it is now to where Hays wants it to be: a legalized and regulated industry modeled after those in Colorado or Nevada.

Progressive activists applaud legalization not only for itself, but also for its social justice implications, as drug charges have been disproportionately focused on blacks and browns for a decades, resulting in huge disparities in incarceration rates.

Republicans have historically embraced “tough on crime” policies and have strongly opposed more lax drug laws, although some Republicans such as Miller have embraced the issue as public opinion increasingly favors to relaxed marijuana laws. Any bill next year, however, would face a very powerful opponent: Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the state Senate, said he would oppose the expansion of marijuana with all of his strenght.

Meanwhile, the lack of a uniform approach to marijuana law enforcement across Texas is a common refrain for Hays, who has a home in Austin. She didn’t like smoking in high school, but now, with access to regulated cannabis produced in other states, she’s experimented and found the particular strains that work for her. She said her favorite was called Acapulco Gold.

“I’m not afraid to say hell yeah I use cannabis. I have no problem saying it publicly,” Hays said in a recent phone call, before adding with a laugh, “I don’t wouldn’t have admitted it if it wasn’t in the home of Travis County, a non-prosecution county.

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