Would Texas Legalize Marijuana if Walmart Wanted It?
As I stood in the Capitol rotunda this week waiting to speak to one of the sheriffs in town for Sheriffs’ Day, a nicely dressed woman in her late thirties asked me for directions to registration. Registration? As a lobbyist? “Yes, she replied. I want to lobby for marijuana.” My confusion was then resolved: she was a citizen at the Capitol to petition her Legislature to make marijuana legal in Texas, a prospect not likely to happen, as noted in today’s The Dallas Morning News.
Nearly 300 marijuana enthusiasts made their way to the Texas Capitol on Wednesday to persuade tough-on-crime Republicans to loosen their stance on the drug.
They were sober and dressed to impress. And though lawmakers may give their proposal some consideration, their hopes are likely to go up in smoke.
Fully legalized recreational marijuana as in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington is not likely to happen. But there is a slim change bills will move forward for medical marijuana, not the kind that is smoked but in an extract where the key ingredient, Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is available for a variety of conditions, from controlling epileptic seizers to easing the suffering of chemotherapy. The poster child for the medical marijuana movement is Alexis Bortell, who has epilepsy, as reported on by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and WFAA television.
Alexis Bortell’s story has attracted attention across Texas.
“Medical cannabis will help me,” the 9-year-old told WFAA.com. “It’s illegal in Texas, and we’re trying to change that.”
Two Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, recently introduced legislation to legalize medical marijuana — not the kind you smoke, but rather cannabis oil. But it won’t be legal anytime soon.
In the meantime, Alexis’ family has decided to move to Colorado, where it is legal.
Probably the biggest obstacle to the legalization of medical marijuana is the fear that people might have fun through inebriation. And that got me thinking about how Alexis Bortell and Walmart are sort of the same – only different. Perhaps I think that because of the $435,000 that Walmart heiress Alice Walton poured into Texas political campaigns last year. I couldn’t find any donations from Alexis or her family. There also is a difference between Alexis and Walmart because the inebriating product Walmart is pushing in this year’s Legislature already is legal.
Walmart earlier this month filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Texas’ liquor licensing laws because the company wants to operate so-called “package stores” next to its retail stores, reported the Austin American-Statesman. (For those of you not old enough to know, they’re called package stores because the clerks were supposed to bag up the liquor bottle so your neighbors wouldn’t see you bringing home the devil’s tea.) The company also is challenging a state law that prohibits companies or persons from owning more than five liquor licenses, but close families can pool their licenses to create chains. Representative Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs and Senator Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, both Republicans, earlier this week filed bills, Senate Bill 609 and House Bill 1225, to end this restraint of trade. Hancock told the Statesman that the issue is one of free enterprise.
“Texas is the only state in the nation with this type of targeted, anti-competitive restriction still in place,” Hancock said in a news release. “Along with most Texans, I believe the government should not be in the position of picking winners and losers in private industry.”
Although the issue is slightly different, Walmart already is fighting it out at the Florida Legislature, with one of the state’s largest grocery chains opposing the Walmart version of liquor sales. In Florida, the issue is not whether Walmart can sell hard liquor but whether it has to have stand-alone stores. The camel’s nose in Texas is to merely let Walmart sell spirits at stores next to the main operation. Walmart already has that in Florida, but now wants to bring it all under one roof.
Rep. Greg Steube, the sponsor of the legislation, said he wanted to change laws that dated back to Prohibition to make it easier to do business in Florida.
“I would think that it would be a heck of a lot easier to manage your product not having to build two separate locations, not having to hire two separate employee staffs to manage the big store and your separate store that has certain spirits,” Steube, R-Sarasota, said.
Publix, the state’s largest privately owned company, has made a strategic decision to oppose the proposal because of concern that its big-box rival could take advantage and grab a chunk of the lucrative liquor sales market that Publix has already invested in.
“At the end of the day, Wal-Mart has a very specific business model and Publix does not have the same business model,” Publix lobbyist Teye Reeves said during a committee hearing Wednesday. “And we’re concerned that it will put us at a competitive disadvantage.”
Publix operates dozens of liquor stores across the state, generally next door to one of its grocery stores. Walmart has been more reluctant to embrace that model and instead focused on getting the law changed so that vodka, tequila and other hard liquor could be stocked next to the beer and wine already allowed in grocery stores.
But what of Alexis and her family’s plans to move to Colorado, where marijuana is legal? Colorado’s legalized sales have not been the tax revenue windfall that was promoted when voters approved legalization in 2012, but the sales are earning revenue that’s dedicated to building schools.
The state’s voters in 2012 legalized pot sales – and taxed them heavily – in part because the constitutional amendment promised that $40 million dollars a year would go toward school construction across the state. In the first full year of sales, however, the state expects to collect only about $17 million in special school taxes levied on the marijuana industry. Still, it’s better than what the state collected the year before: nothing.
“The people who were smoking marijuana before legalization still are. Now, they’re paying taxes,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said.
Of course, for Texas, there is the question of whether you want your state population to walk around stoned. However, consider how much we’re all drinking. In December alone, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission reported that people in Texas consumed 2.9 million gallons of distilled spirits, 4.6 million gallons of wine, 5.7 million gallons of ale, and 38.2 million gallons of beer—and no, dear, I didn’t drink all that beer by myself. Tax revenue from all that libation, approximately $17 million.
There are downsides to all of this as well. The Texas Department of State Health Services reports there are about half a million Texans each year receiving treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. At the end of the 2012 state fiscal year, the Texas criminal justice system housed about 31,000 inmates on drug-related offenses, with another 61,000 on parole or probation. At present, it probably is too early to tell what impact marijuana will have on the residents of the states where it has been legalized.
I don’t want to argue for or against legalizing marijuana or medical marijuana. But I do want to ask the question: Why can’t Alexis get some tender loving care and some THC if Walmart gets its package stores?