A group of marijuana lobbyists pose for a photo with state Sen. Joan Huffman, center-right in black dress, on Feb. 8, 2017 at the Capitol in Austin, Texas. Attendance at the official Marijuana Lobby Day has grown from 25 people in 2011 to 375 this year. (Courtesy photo)

Texas Marijuana Lobby Day has ballooned in size — and potentially influence

AUSTIN, Texas — On a recent Wednesday morning at an auxiliary building of the Texas State Capitol, two conference rooms filled in with people who were very excited to advocate for marijuana.

The crowd on hand for Marijuana Lobby Day included patients, doctors, lawyers and dozens of random marijuana-loving citizens from all over Texas. Much of the crowd was Republican. An organization called RAMP, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, had brought an entire bus to Austin. Not among the gathered: Military veterans or mothers of epileptic children. There are so many of them pushing for marijuana reform in Texas that they have their own lobby days.

Most of the people had already gone through a lobbying training session. The Marijuana Policy Project and Texas NORML have been holding them in such far-flung locations as Amarillo and El Paso. Everyone showed up with their talking points, dressed professionally.

“You guys are looking fine,” an organizer said from the podium.

Only 25 people showed up for the first Texas Marijuana Lobby Day, in 2011. Two years later, close to 50 people, many of them desperately ill, went to the Capitol, pleading for legalized medical marijuana. In 2015, Texas NORML, which had been going it alone, got a wealthy ally in the Marijuana Policy Project, and the number of amateur lobbyists suddenly went up to 300. This year, marijuana has three full-time lobbyists in Texas and two full-time organizers. This year’s lobby day, held Feb. 8, drew 375 people.

In one of the conference rooms, Heather Fazio, the Marijuana Policy Project’s Texas point person, got on the mic to tell the activists that this year’s lobbying effort would focus on two bills: One would expand the state’s extremely limited medical marijuana program, and the other would reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of weed to a modest fine, similar to a traffic ticket. “Focus on the money that’s being wasted,” she said. “I’m a limited-government girl myself, so that one’s important to me.”

I sat next to Noelle Davis, who’s been advocating for weed reform in Texas since 2001. Davis said she became interested in medical marijuana because she saw how it helped friends with HIV/AIDS. She also had family and friends arrested for weed possession back in Indiana, and she saw how those convictions ruined their lives. Davis led protean versions of marijuana lobby days back in 2005 and 2007. But times are different now.

“I would bring veterans, people in wheelchairs, amputees,” she said. “It was disappointing to see how some of the representatives would treat them. I don’t see that anymore.”

Davis, a former actress, told me she’s in a career transition. She’s now a relationship and intimacy coach certified in the “conscious uncoupling” method that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin made famous. The professionals are in charge of Marijuana Lobby Day now. But Davis knows how the Texas government works, and she’s a prime lieutenant.

After a pep rally, group photo and brief lunch break, Davis had her group meet in the Capitol Rotunda at 1:15 PM, underneath the portrait of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. The lobbyists had been divided into state Congressional districts. Davis was in charge of three contingents from Houston, about 40 people total.

“My name is Noelle,” she said. “I will be guiding us on our little adventure.”

As her group began to gather, Davis advised everyone how to lobby.

“This is not ‘talk all day,'” she said. “Just briefly share stories.”

“Marijuana keeps me from being a mass murderer,” said a woman.

“Maybe don’t present it like that,” Davis advised, kindly.

I went along with the group from District 17 — the largest group — which included Ann Lee, the octogenarian founder of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, and the guiding spirit of marijuana reform in Texas. Festooned in red, white and blue, walking with a cane, Lee marched right into state Sen. Joan Huffman’s office. “I’m one of her precinct captains,” she said. “Why, there’s Joan right there! Hello, Joan!”

“Hello, Ann!” Huffman said.

While Lee and Huffman discussed their children, the rest of the lobbyists were ushered into an echoey hallway, adjacent to an incessantly-beeping security checkpoint. There, they urgently assailed a young male Huffman staffer who looked like he’d never seen the sharp side of a razor. The staffer took notes nervously as the activists pressed their case:

“Three years ago, I almost died because of an opioid overdose.”

“We have to live with the pain.”

“We get randomly drug-tested five times a year so it’s not possible for people like us.”

“My sister was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had traditional treatments that didn’t work.”

Huffman emerged from her office for chit-chat and photos. She said nothing about the marijuana bills.

“I’m not sure what she will do about marijuana,” Lee said later. “I’m going to have to have a sit-down with some of these people.”

Meanwhile, a couple of first-time lobbyists had gotten the attention of Wroe Jackson, Huffman’s chief of staff. The lobbyists were an unusual pair: Rahel Abraham, an attractive Ethiopian woman who works as a project manager for a Houston oil and gas company, and Chase Bradstreet, a lawyer who’s the communications director of Houston Young Republicans. Abraham was wearing a lapel pin of the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, and Bradstreet was wearing a tie patterned with tiny elephants and American flags.

“Like a lot of millennials, I feel like it’s time to go beyond social media,” Abraham says. “Pick something. Be active. And marijuana is what I’m choosing.”

She’s now the membership director of Houston NORML. Bradstreet worked on a couple of weed cases while he was a student at the University of Mississippi law school, and he didn’t like what he saw in the system.

Jackson ushered them into an office for what he assumed would be a quick sit-down. They asked Jackson if he’d talked with Huffman about pending marijuana bills.

“We have not had a philosophical conversation on it,” Jackson said.

Abraham made her case, “hitting all the fiscal angles,” but the meeting belonged to Bradstreet. As he began to talk, Jackson leaned in, as if to say, “Go on…”

On the state and federal level, Bradstreet said, the majority of violations of the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendments stem from “overzealous, malicious pretextual, or bureaucratically Kafkaesque enforcement of the drug laws.” He cited numerous Supreme Court cases that showed how “illiberal progressive” judges had manipulated the law to take away marijuana freedoms. Bradstreet said he was particularly appalled by 2005’s Gonzalez vs. Raich, where a majority of Supreme Court justices ruled that the feds could “prosecute a man for growing pot for his own personal consumption.”

“I pointed out that it is dangerous for Republicans to castigate FDR and his tamed Court for eliminating any real limitation on government power,” Bradstreet said later in an email, “while going on to defend that same usurpation for a policy they happen to like.”

The meeting lasted half an hour. Davis, the seasoned advocate, told Abraham later, “He wouldn’t have kept you in there that long if you weren’t offering him something of value.”

Abraham had received her first lesson in how to lobby Republicans.

“He was very amused by Chase,” she said. “It was like hearing an essay, the way Chase presented it.”

Similar dialogues played out across the Capitol all afternoon. Then the lobbyists retreated to a local establishment to drink, eat, and sneak a few puffs before heading back to their hometowns on charter buses.

Davis seemed quite satisfied. She’s been working these hustings a long time. Finally, there’s a payoff.

“We’re winning!” she said, gleefully. “We’re winning.”