Country music legend and legalization activist Willie Nelson plays a show at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay in San Diego in October 2016. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

A plea from Texas to Willie Nelson: Your influence is needed in fight to legalize weed

AUSTIN, Texas — In May, Rolling Stone asked Willie Nelson if there’s any “downside” to smoking weed. Nelson replied: “I haven’t run into any yet. I guess if you go somewhere where it’s illegal, that’s a pretty good downside.”

When it comes to marijuana, the storied musician’s home state of Texas definitely has a pretty good downside.

While he remains one of marijuana’s foremost cultural ambassadors, Nelson has also gotten into the big-time cannabis business. His namesake brand of Willie’s Reserve is currently sold in three western states, in flower and edible form. But it’s nowhere to be found in the Lone Star State, where weed remains stubbornly illegal and heavily criminalized. If Texans want to snack on pot chocolates created by Nelson’s spouse Annie Nelson, they’d better figure out how to get up to Denver or Seattle.

Reviews: How the Willie’s Reserve line of flower tastes and smokes

Possession of more than four ounces in Texas is a felony that can get you a $10,000 fine and up to two years in prison. The same goes for possessing any amount of hash or concentrates. Meanwhile, the state’s medical cannabis law only allows low-THC strains that are heavy in cannabidiol (CBD), and only for children with a particular type of intractable epilepsy.

Despite the endless efforts of a dedicated group of activists, this year’s Texas legislative session saw no significant progress on cannabis reform.

Nelson was nowhere to be seen during this desperate fight. No one here has more cultural credibility or cachet than he does. So he should leverage it to help legalize marijuana in Texas. His longtime advocacy for cannabis could be influential in a state where lawmakers only meet every two years and citizens can’t put initiatives on the state-wide ballot.

Willie Nelson holds up a container of his branded marijuana with “6630507” written on it. Following the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s inaction on rescheduling marijuana, legalization proponents have responded by taking to the internet to highlight Patent No. 6,630,507, which covers the potential use of non-psychoactive cannabinoids. (Photo courtesy of Willie’s Reserve)

Irony in the Texas origins of Willie’s Reserve

Willie’s Reserve was actually hatched in Texas, in 2014, at Nelson’s ranch in the Hill Country west of Austin. Nelson set forth four major precepts about the company, Elizabeth Hogan, vice president of brand for the company, told The Cannabist.

First, it would be dedicated to social justice. According to Hogan, Nelson told his new employees it’s not fair that some people go to jail for weed and some don’t. Second, marijuana is an agricultural business, and that business must be done in a way that’s beneficial for small farmers and the planet. Also, marijuana is medicine for many people and must be respected as such. Finally, it’s about personal freedom. Hogan quoted Nelson as saying, “I’m an adult, this is a plant. As an adult I can do what I want.”

In other words, Nelson’s agenda for marijuana is at the progressive forefront of the movement. He’s betting his own money, wisely, on the chance that agenda will come to life everywhere. This makes it extra ironic that Texas, the global epicenter of Willie culture and worship, is seeing none of the benefits of his cannabis vision.

At Nelson’s annual South By Southwest party at his ranch in Luck, Texas, this past March, Willie’s Reserve had a presence: Representatives were selling T-shirts and hats, and there was a seamstress on hand to patch the Willie’s Reserve logo on people’s denim jackets. “That’s a way for them to say they’re with Willie on this issue,” Hogan said.

But there’s a big difference between being able to share Nelson’s “message” and being able to actually legally purchase Willie’s Reserve products. After all, Nelson’s message about pot is hardly an international mystery.

Fundraising is a start, but more needed

Politically, the situation is even more dissonant. When it came to larger activism in this vital year, Nelson, the prominent marijuana businessman who’s also been promoting his new album “God’s Problem Child,” was AWOL. Hogan admitted that, in Texas, “We did not take a stand. The company has been focused on bringing the brand to market in states that have already said yes.”

Of course, Willie and Co. are friendly to marijuana activists, and Nelson is the longtime co-chair for the advisory board of the National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). For four years now, Nelson’s family has sponsored a “Puff N Putt” fundraiser for the Texas NORML chapter at the singer’s golf course in Spicewood, and this year was no exception.

In 2017, though, activists could have used some help other than fundraising.

“I would love to see us work together a little bit more, if he would be willing to lend that,” said Heather Fazio, Texas political director for national advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. “The respect for Willie Nelson as an icon would transcend partisan lines. Conservative legislators love Willie Nelson. Everybody loves Willie Nelson.”

In particular, Fazio says, Nelson could be useful when it comes to pushing statewide criminal justice reform. “He’s an old man, and a lot of elderly Texans are the ones who get criminalized,” she says. “He’s got the money and the celebrity to get out of it, but 60,000 to 70,000 Texans aren’t so lucky every year.”

The Willie’s Reserve management team is aware of this problem. “Right this minute in Texas, there are people getting 24 years for pot, and they’re not being caught with truckloads,” Hogan said, adding that “The pathways for helping are different. Big names in cannabis have a role to play.”

That role could include legislative lobbying. “We’re open to politics to the extent that we can help consumers find their voices. It’s what voters want,” Hogan said.

She said that it’s “not out of consideration” that Willie’s Reserve would join the lobbying effort in some way in 2019, the next time the Texas Legislature meets. When it comes to marijuana, she says, it’s time for Texas to join the 21st century.

“As a company we are really encouraged that it’s even under consideration in Texas,” Hogan said. “Obviously, it’s a natural fit for the brand. The day that we can legally put Willie’s Reserve on sale in a cannabis store (in Texas) is going to be a huge day for Texas, for our company, and for Willie Nelson himself.”