Optimism ran high at the first-ever cannabis convention in the Lone Star state last weekend. On the floor of the Fort Worth Convention Center, purple-suit-clad hemp-butter salesmen roller skated through the crowd, retreating and venturing out from their home base, a (magic?) school bus. Families rocked sleeping infants while browsing glassware. Couples, just there to "check it out," strolled hand-in-hand past advocacy booths—for Texas NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, and the Marijuana Policy Project —offering fact sheets and selling Texas-themed tees. Job seekers in shined shoes talked shop with startup reps, one of whom assured me that only 30 percent of jobs created around cannabis are "touching the flowers".
This may be familiar terrain for cannabis industry veterans in Colorado, Washington, and California. But we don’t see this kind of thing every day in Texas.
This is a state infamous for its hard line against all things cannabis. As recently as 2011, Texas was ranked as one of the five worst states in which to get busted. Two years ago a teenager from Round Rock faced a potential life sentence for being caught with about a pound and a half of pot brownies. In Texas, mandatory minimum sentences are still in effect for cannabis-related offenses. Those sentences carry no chance of parole and offer judges no leeway to lessen the penalty.
There have been small signs of change. Last year Texas adopted the Compassionate Use Act, which allows patients with intractable epilepsy to use low-THC cannabis. While it’s a step in the right direction, existing laws still bar nearly all Texans from accessing the bulk of the money-, health-, and happiness-making possibilities of the plant.
So one of the big questions of the weekend was how local police officers would receive this quasi-outlaw industry.
I tried to talk to a cop – who said he works often at the Fort Worth Convention Center — about the awkwardness of policing against something today that would likely be legal tomorrow. But said he couldn't comment on that—or anything else, for that matter. But, stationed not far from a hemp-brownie stand, he didn't seem to be having a bad time. By the time we spoke, the morning's rocky start seemed like just a bad dream. An hour earlier Glenn Reynolds, CEO of Honey B Healthy Living products, had been detained because of confusion about his company's non-THC-oil containing products.
"It's an education issue,” Reynolds told me. “The [police] were super nice. We had a normal conversation." Reynolds said he’d improved his situation by having a photo on his phone of a hemp hair product available in the drug store down the street—whose ingredients matched the ones in his products.
I asked the seven-strong “Power Women of Cannabis” panel for tips on talking pot with the police. With a preacher's conviction and fire, the "Martha Stewart of weed," Cheryl Shuman, responded: "There's one sentence to remember: 'I do not. Consent. To a search!"
"We try not to have a problem with law enforcement," added Heather Manus, a registered nurse who spearheaded efforts to get PTSD recognized as a debilitating condition under Arizona's medical marijuana act.
Jeanette Ward, founder of Minority Cannabis Business Association, directed me to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition's Larry Talley, a Dallas-based disabled and retired veteran, and advocate on the police force.
Legal problems still loom, Ward added, even where marijuana is lawful. In 23 states, she said, prior offenders are not allowed to enter the industry. Those regulations exclude people of color disproportionately, since minorities are arrested far more often for marijuana use even though people of all ethnicities have similar consumption rates. In Chicago, for instance, recently released figures showed that arrests of Black people for marijuana possession outpaced white arrests 15 to 1.
It was this issue that had drawn Bettina and Laurie to the show. They were Fort Worth locals who were the first convention-goers I met. They were happy to talk, though only on a first-name basis.
"People of color are disproportionately excluded from the conversation on cannabis because of criminal backgrounds,” Bettina told me. “We are here to make sure that doesn't happen" in Texas.
On the brighter side, the booths and panels I saw suggest the cannabis industry's growth in Texas may greatly benefit women, who in the U.S. still earn less than men in every industry where comparative data exists. "Being a woman in this industry is like being a female plant: that's where the value lies,” Heather Manus said. “We can be who we are, and be successful by being that."
Nonprofits that help folks learn about cannabis health benefits, business opportunities, and social justice issues are sprouting before the industry itself in Texas. And women helm the majority of those organizations.
Furthermore, in an industry where word of mouth is everything, women—who are the backbone of many communities in Texas—are ideally positioned to thrive, and are vital conduits of accurate information.
Drayah Sallis, founder of the Dallas chapter of Women Grow, talked about the way people come to women for information through a variety of networks. "You can talk about the plant all day,” she said. “It's not against the law to say 'marijuana.' I am a Christian… and I have had more Christians say to me, 'I've been wanting to ask you about the green stuff.'"
Moving cannabis toward legalization won't be an easy fight in Texas. This is a heavily Republican state, and this can be a tough issue among red voters. Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) may have “Republican” in its name, but the group was still denied a booth at the upcoming state Republican convention. Gov. Greg Abbott recently vetoed a cannabis-related mental health bill while advocating for looser open carry gun laws. But the cannabis conversation is clearly not going away.
"This is going to change the world!” Cheryl Shuman shouted to 250 cannabis-curious Texans in Fort Worth. “It already is. Texas, especially!"