AUSTIN, Texas -- Democrats want to turn Texas blue. Republicans want to keep it red. Now, members of a new advocacy group in Austin have something else in mind: They want to make Texas green.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization isn't blowing smoke about environmental causes. Rather, the Marijuana Policy Project sees an opening to loosen marijuana laws in Texas, following recent comments by Gov. Rick Perry and other state politicians.
Heather Fazio, the newly installed Texas political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said she, a lobbyist and several volunteers will work toward passing state laws that would permit the use of medical marijuana, decriminalization of the controlled substance and eventually allowing adults to possess small amounts of marijuana. Similar efforts will be made in several other states.
The group has a $200,000 budget that will stretch through the 2015 legislative session. The ultimate goal is for the state to treat marijuana more like liquor. It could be taxed and regulated, Fazio said.
''We are seeing this movement really happening," Fazio said. "We want a safe and legal market."
Fazio said she hopes that Texas will follow the path of other states that have recently relaxed their marijuana laws.
She pointed to Colorado as a model. Officials in the Rocky Mountain state said recently that dispensaries there sold nearly $19 million worth of recreational marijuana in March, up from about $14 million the month before. Through three months of allowing retail recreational pot, the state has earned $7.3 million in taxes. That figure doesn't include medical marijuana sales taxes or licensing fees, which bring Colorado's haul to about $12.6 million.
State lawmakers in Colorado this month approved a plan to spend marijuana taxes mostly on child drug use prevention and outreach. The $33 million plan includes money for more school nurses and public education on using marijuana responsibly.
Reluctance to change laws
In Texas, the Marijuana Policy Project has been buoyed by recent statements from top state officials.
Citing remarks from Perry and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, the Marijuana Policy Project's website says that Texas' "current leadership and candidates for prominent political offices are increasingly calling for marijuana policy reform in the Lone Star State."
But the support might not be a concrete as the group's leaders think.
While Davis supports allowing medical marijuana, she also thinks "Texans should be the decision-makers on the matter," spokeswoman Rebecca Acuna said.
As for Perry, the Marijuana Policy Project might have misunderstood comments he made about drug crimes at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry.
The governor isn't in favor of legalization or allowing medicinal marijuana. However, Nashed said, he would like to find alternative solutions such as rehabilitation and the expansion of state drug courts for nonviolent drug offenders, as Perry noted at the conference.
State Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, supports Texas' drug laws but is supportive of diversionary and rehabilitative programs, spokesman Matt Hirsch said.
Abbott "believes the best methods of combating illegal drug use include a combination of medical treatment and criminal enforcement," Hirsch said. "Legalizing drugs would encourage drug use, which affects every sector of society, straining our economy, our health care and criminal justice systems, and endangering the lives of future generations."
Texas has led much of the nation in drug arrests. In 2010, 74,000 people were arrested in Texas for marijuana possession -- second only to New York -- about 20,000 more than were arrested in the state a decade earlier. That increase was among the largest in the country.
Allies in the Legislature?
State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, who has filed medical marijuana bills in the past, says he has the "utmost respect" for the Marijuana Policy Project, but that Texas lawmakers aren't likely to approve any kind of legalization, he said.
But Naishtat added that he is hopeful that a bill he plans to file could gain traction. The measure would set up an affirmative defense for a sick person who gets arrested for smoking pot, allowing a judge to legally dismiss the case.
''I'm still not saying it has a good chance, but it has a better chance than ever before," he said.
On the GOP side, the marijuana policy group might find allies within the libertarian wing of that party.
State Rep. David Simpson, a Longview Republican and leader of the party's libertarian faction, said he believes people should make their own health decisions, especially when it comes to "a natural plant that grows here in Texas," he said.
''I support individuals making their own health care decisions and being responsible for them, and not the government," he said.
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he and some other of his conservative colleagues aren't quite ready to turn Texas into another Colorado. But, he insisted that they are willing to listen to constituents' concerns and perspectives.
He said, "I could see it becoming more of a discussion as we get closer to session."
Tim Eaton writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: teaton(at)statesman.com.