SXSW: Welcome to Austin, 1999’s Version of Pot Paradise. Here’s How to Get By in 2017.

Published on March 10, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Editor’s Note: Neal Pollack is a novelist, satirist, yoga instructor, Jeopardy! Champion, proud stoner, and longtime resident of Austin, Texas. When he’s not grooving and consuming, Pollack remains one of America’s most prolific authors. His books include Downward Facing Death, Alternadad, Jewball, Never Mind the Pollacks, and The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. This is his first piece for Leafly.

If you’re coming to Austin for South By Southwest — and, judging from the texts I’ve been getting asking me for a place to crash, you probably are — don’t worry, we’ve got you covered on the weed front. As a trusted source said to me last week, “I know guys who are running three, four trucks up to the Colorado border and to California every day. They can’t get the marijuana here fast enough.” Though I won’t confirm it, I’m sure plenty of SUV’s are cruising up from Mexico as well. There will be pot at South By.

The chiba appears at SXSW if you say its name three times when you’re in a band, or are a comedian, or work for a record label. Your odds aren’t bad if you’re a civilian, either. Last year I had a guy in full biker regalia pass me a blunt the size of a hot dog during a concert in a hotel parking lot, and I smoked a backstage joint rolled in gold leaf after a midnight comedy show. It was a long and hazy week. Welcome to Austin. Allow me to offer a word of warning and a reality check.

Twenty years ago Austin was the best place in the world, outside of Amsterdam, to get high. We had Willie and lakes and 200,000 hippies. Weed has always grown easily in Texas soil. Texans love their pot. I moved to Austin partially because a bunch of bookstore employees smoked me up in a parking structure after I gave a reading. Compared to the rest of the world, pot was easy to find here, and it was always good.

Increasingly, though, as marijuana continues its remarkable cultural journey from demon gange to tolerated and regulated multibillion-dollar industry, Austin is looking and feeling stuck in the past. I travel a lot, and I often get high when I travel, because I can, legally or semi-legally. Compared with Denver, or Seattle, or Portland, or New York City, or Las Vegas, or anywhere in California, or Washington, D.C., for god’s sake, Austin seems almost like a dry county. Phoenix, Arizona, the very conservative city where I grew up, has medical marijuana billboards. You don’t see that here. True, if you buy tickets to Willie Nelson’s annual SXSW family gathering in Luck, Texas, the wispy gray sky overhead will probably not be cloud cover. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to get marijuana, even at Willie’s Place.

“Twenty years ago Austin was the best place in the world, outside of Amsterdam, to get high.”

How should you plan to get by? You can always bring your own, at your own risk. If you spark up your porta-vape at SXSW, as long as it’s not in the cafeteria at the convention center, you should be OK. The police have bigger things to worry about than Silicon Valley digi-tourists and their smuggled sativa oils. Also, as Coloradans well know, no one can deny you your God-given right to pop a Cheeba Chew before heading to the movies. Still, be mindful.

The possession limit for a non-arrest misdemeanor rap in Austin is four ounces, which makes the city 1999’s version of pot paradise. But despite relative tolerance in the capital, marijuana, in case you didn’t know, is illegal in the state of Texas. And not just illegal. Very illegal. Possession can still get you locked up in many counties. Though there’s plenty of activism and agitation, the state legislature has still legalized only non-THC medical marijuana, to be dispensed by licensed medical personnel, and only to children with incurable epilepsy.

Which States Are Most Likely to Legalize Cannabis Next?

So during Austin festivals, marijuana is readily available, almost omnipresent, as it has been for decades. But after the music stops, suddenly it gets a little harder. We still live in a world where “Todd’s guy had to stop selling because the feds were hassling him,” where the cops seize hundreds of pounds of marijuana a year. It’s not out in the open. Three times a month, someone asks me, “Do you know where I can get some weed?” I would never hear that question if I lived in Boulder.

If you’re looking to actually buy weed, as opposed to just getting it passed to you at Stubbs’, you can find it, but you’re suddenly dealing in the black market. And if you’re black in that black market, you’d better watch out; this is Texas, after all. As it happens, I do know where you can get some weed, at least usually, though that “where” is subject to change. But I also know that not everyone enjoys regularly taking an hour out of his or her day for what amounts to a grim drug errand, so I don’t share that information. Here, you have to know somebody who knows somebody, and those people are often people who you don’t really want to know. South By Southwest is their busiest season.

“We have deep stoner roots and we love to share.”

It would a lot easier to just stop by the weed store on your way home from work, but you can’t do that in Austin. Don’t even think about buying edibles or oils or sodas or mints or whatever other delights are readily available in Oregon dispensaries. They are hard to find here, often homemade, and always hideously overpriced.

Austin would be the greatest city if you could just legally buy weed here (and if it had better public transportation, but that’s another issue). But when it comes to marijuana, only Willie’s Finest saves it from being a backwater. It’s a shame, too. We have deep stoner roots and we love to share. For now, though, because of our antediluvian state government, we’re politically lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to marijuana laws. Shop and consume accordingly. But don’t worry about the booze.

Of that, you can have as much as you want.

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Neal Pollack
Neal Pollack
Neal is a novelist, satirist, yoga instructor, Jeopardy! Champion, proud stoner, and longtime resident of Austin, Texas.
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