Texas town tired of 'war on drugs' at the border sees push to legalize marijuana
Young woman smoking marijuana with a pipe (Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance)

Of all the weekends for Colt DeMorris to be pulled over by the cops for a broken tail-light, it had to be the one before 4/20.

That day is the unofficial annual holiday for marijuana enthusiasts, and DeMorris is the executive director of the El Paso chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He was headed home at 2.30am on Saturday from 420 Fest, a music event sponsored by his group. The smell was unmistakable.

What happened next was predictable: the arrest, the 14-hour booking process, the court date. What is more surprising is that amid the usual torrent of anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-equality measures floated in this year’s session of the Texas legislature, there were 11 progressive marijuana-related bills, and one, legalising marijuana extracts for severe epilepsy, even became law.

It is not only liberal Austin blazing the reform trail in blood-red Texas, but also El Paso – the quiet west Texas border town across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city so ravaged by drug cartel violence that until recently it was the murder capital of the world.

Related: Free marijuana for all: Oregonians exercise the right to Weed the People

A state representative from El Paso, Marisa Marquez, introduced a medical marijuana bill. Another El Paso Democrat, Joe Moody, proposed a bill to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of pot.

Beto O’Rourke , a Democratic US congressman from El Paso, co-wrote a 2011 book calling for drug policy reform and won election in 2012 with a pro-marijuana legalisation stance. The incumbent he ousted in the primary, Silvestre Reyes , was the former head of Border Patrol in El Paso who in 1993 introduced the controversial Operation Hold the Line, which saturated the border with agents to create a human blockade.

Law enforcement officers still swarm El Paso’s placid downtown and its sun-baked desert surroundings. Fort Bliss, the second-largest US army installation, is a short drive away. The city of 700,000 has repeatedly been named the safest of its size in the US, despite its proximity to Juárez, population 1.3 million, where 424 homicides in 2014 was considered excellent progress.

But the drugs keep coming. Border Patrol seized 44,000lbs of marijuana in the El Paso area in the last fiscal year.

On one Saturday last month, the El Paso Times reported, officers found 529lbs of marijuana in the gas tank and a tire of a 1995 Chevrolet Blazer, in hidden compartments of a Dodge Ram and in the side panels of a Honda Ridgeline.

Yet many El Pasoans would like to see marijuana legalised, or at least decriminalised – not so much despite the cartel traffic that ghosts through their city, but because of it. Or more precisely, because they believe the decades-long US “war on drugs” has militarised the border and put ordinary people under constant surveillance, disrupting lives and fracturing communities without achieving results that justify the emotional, cultural and economic costs.

An El Paso company is selling Donald Trump piñatas after he depicted Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. The Republican presidential hopeful’s description of Mexico is typical of hardline immigration rhetoric that sees Mexico as a troublesome “other”. It is not an attitude that would gain Trump many votes in El Paso, four-fifths Hispanic and in a symbiotic relationship with Juárez.

“We need to change the discourse about Mexico. Americans need to get beyond saying they like Mexican food and accept that these countries are joined at the hip,” says Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Mexico is a permanent part of American culture. Let’s embrace it as part of the country, not some kind of add-on.”

The belief here is that US policy should consider and nurture the close relationship between the countries, not erect barriers – metaphorical and literal – between the nations.

There is a deep distrust of the federal government in Texas and that could potentially extend to our drug laws

US Representative Beto O'Rourke

“The cartels are bigger and stronger than they’ve ever been and what have we really done that’s thwarted their efforts? Nothing,” says Justin Underwood, an El Paso attorney. “I am of the opinion that human beings are going to do drugs, period. Human beings are going to drink alcohol. I accept these things as facts and as long as you have a demand you will always have a supply, no matter what.”

Legalising cannabis north of the border, the theory goes, would harm the cartels’ income streams, softening their power.

“I don’t know that it would reduce crime in El Paso, which is already the safest city in America – but it would help to reduce cartel crime in Mexico. Today, Mexican cartels enjoy billions of dollars in profits from US drug sales, profits that go to hire young men and women, to buy politicians, police and judges, and allow some to commit crime with impunity,” O’Rourke said.

Nuanced arguments that challenge fearful Reagan-era convictions about the relationship between drugs and national security would gain no traction 580 miles east of El Paso at the Republican-dominated statehouse in Austin, where Governor Greg Abbott last month approved an $800m, two-year plan for Texas to beef up border security – a federal responsibility – by, in essence, developing its own border police force.

Instead, exactly a hundred years after El Paso became one of the first cities in the US to ban marijuana, because it supposedly caused a “ lust for human blood ”, legislators pushing progressive marijuana laws are making a conservative case. “We try to appeal to that fiscal conservatism that so many espouse in Texas and say: ‘Look, is the price tag worth what you’re getting?’ And I think the answer’s no,” says Moody, a former prosecutor.

He wants “an approach that is fiscally sound and smarter than what we’ve been doing, which is wasting somewhere near $770m every year prosecuting low-level marijuana offences. We’re wrecking what are mostly young offenders’ lives with these convictions and charges … We’re making an entire class of young people unemployable.”

More than 70,000 Texans were arrested for marijuana possession in 2013, according to official figures. First-time possession of less than two ounces is a misdemeanour punishable by up to 180 days in prison and a fine of up to $2,000.

“In a city where you have thousands of pounds of marijuana, why would you even care about a teenager smoking a joint? It’s preposterous. Why worry about consumption when the issue really is the mayhem and murder linked with trafficking?” said Campbell.

“We need to push for reforming the way we enforce the penalties. Keeping low-level possession a crime rather than a civil sanction is a mistake,” Moody said. “I don’t think that’s a bridge too far for Texas, even given the conservative makeup of the legislature and the leadership, but it’s still going to be a heavy lift.”

In this year’s session he introduced a bill to make possession of less than an ounce a civil offence. It made Texas history as the first weed bill to clear the committee stage but failed to advance further. A more dramatic proposal to legalise marijuana for adults, authored by David Simpson, a Republican Tea Party member who thinks God is cool with moderate pot use , also cleared the criminal jurisprudence committee before meeting the same fate.

Still, Abbott last month signed a bill that permits certain cannabis oils to be used to treat severe epilepsy, under strictly regulated conditions. A victory for pro-weed campaigners? Not according to DeMorris, the El Paso activist.

“I hate it,” he said. “The only good I see about that is that the Texas politicians and governor see that cannabis is medicine.” DeMorris suspects that Republicans passed a restrictive and impractical law as a sop designed to ward off calls for something more comprehensive and useful.

The 30-year-old legal assistant became passionate about cannabis’s medicinal potential when he researched the subject after his mother died of cancer in 2009. Three years later, his wife, Toni Anderson, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. He believes cannabis oil helped shrink her tumour.

Anderson, too, has been arrested for pot in El Paso: she spent 16 hours in jail on a possession charge and was fined $300 after being caught smoking in the back of a truck at a festival last year, he said.

She remains unwell and the couple are not willing to wait for Texas laws to mellow out. They plan to move across the border this year – to New Mexico. The state line is only a couple miles west of central El Paso and medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 2007.

O’Rourke, like the activists, is hopeful that change is coming – even if it turns out to be inspired less by enlightened attitudes towards Mexico and border security than by the Lone Star state’s independent, -sceptic spirit.

“Texas is making progress, but as with most of the south, it is behind on this issue. My hope is that a significant southern state will show the way and the rest will follow. It’s possible that Texas could be that state: there is a deep distrust of the federal government in Texas and that distrust could potentially extend to our heavy-handed drug laws.”

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