AUSTIN - The lobby to loosen marijuana laws took to the streets in rallies across the state earlier this month, and now they’re hitting Texans where they really live - television.
A 30-second ad - slated to air on Fox News, CNN and ESPN through Thursday in four major media markets - is the first-ever, pro-pot TV spot to air in Texas, according to a spokeswoman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
It's set to reach viewers as a deadline nears on moving a marijuana decriminalization bill through the House. Lawmakers must sign off by midnight Thursday to advance the proposal.
The advertisement, which will cost about $10,000 to broadcast, features a retired narcotics detective who tells viewers that police should spend their time on serious crimes, not marijuana arrests.
Its sober tone may be its biggest problem, according to one expert who says the message is too rational to change undecided viewers’ opinions, let alone prompt them to contact lawmakers.
“Historically a lot of the opposition (to decriminalization) has been based on race, class and age,” said Barry Brummett, communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in rhetoric and popular culture. “That’s kind of a subtext. That ad doesn’t go after that at all.”
In the commercial, Russell Jones, a former San Jose, Calif. narcotics detective and Drug Enforcement Agency task force member now living in Texas, speaks earnestly over displays of statistics about marijuana in Texas.
"I know of no instance in my entire career where someone was acting out under the influence of marijuana,” says Jones. “People under the influence of alcohol are much more problematic.
He continues, "Law enforcement officials have more important things to do with their time than arrest people for marijuana possession. They need to be there to protect the public, to respond to crimes such as robbery, burglaries, rapes and murders.”
Brummett said the ad may be coming too late in the game to light up lawmakers’ phones. But Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said she's optimistic that the House will at least vote.
“As long as the clock doesn’t run out, there’s going to be a debate," she said. "It’s really exciting that we’re going to get a vote.”
Possession of less than two ounces of marijuana now can lead to an arrest, up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $2,000 and a criminal record. The bill authored by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make possession of up to one ounce punishable by a civil fine up to $250.
The proposal has 37 co-authors.
The House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence approved the measure last week. Provided that the bill passes the full House, Fazio said she thinks it will make it the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
“We know he’s generally supportive,” she said. “I think that we have an excellent shot. As long as the clock doesn’t run out, we know there’s going to be a debate.”
John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Texas newspapers. Contact him at jaustin@CNHI.com