Almost the first notable act of Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke’s political career involved a proposed reconsideration of the war on drugs.
In 2009 he was on El Paso’s city council. The council took up a (purely symbolic) resolution about cross-border relations. O’Rourke proposed an amendment that called for honest debate “on ending the prohibition on narcotics.” The resolution, with that language, then passed unanimously and, to everyone’s surprise, it made headlines. Silvestre Reyes, the congressman representing El Paso, reacted angrily, claiming that the council had put federal stimulus funds at risk.
O’Rourke responded to the fuss by going deeper. He and a co-author (Susie Byrd, a colleague on the City Council) co-wrote a book, Dealing Death and Drugs, about the drug trade along the U.S.-Mexican border, published in 2011. O’Rourke and Byrd argued there for the legalization of marijuana in the US, a move they regarded as necessary to reduce violence and to strip criminal enterprises of a profit center.
In 2012, O’Rourke challenged Reyes in the Democratic primary. Assisted by a timely bit of redistricting, he won that primary, and the general election that followed. O’Rourke brought his concern with the issue of drugs, and marijuana in particular, with him to Washington.
O’Rourke in the House of Representatives
During his three terms in the House of Representatives, O’Rourke supported measures that would expand the availability of cannabis for research, prevent federal interferences with state legalization and the resulting regulatory systems, and increase access to medical marijuana for veterans of the armed forces. He also called for the expunging of the records of individuals sentenced for the possession of small amounts of cannabis.
In 2015 alone, O’Rourke co-sponsored the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, the Veterans Equal Access Act, the Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act, the Respect State Laws Marijuana Access Act, and the CARERS (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect the States) Act
In March 2017, in video still available on the website of the El Paso Times, O’Rourke says that the drug war was a “noble effort” to keep drugs out of the hands of young people, to whose developing brains he says MJ can be “deeply damaging.” But it has “failed miserably” in that.
How then, should drugs be kept away from the people with those vulnerable brains? He said the “least bad” solution is to treat marijuana like tobacco, where rates of use by young people have dropped precipitously in recent years. “We could do something similar with marijuana.”
O’Rourke achieved a new level of national prominence in 2018, when he was the Democratic Party’s nominee to run against incumbent Senator Rafael Edward (“Ted”) Cruz. Cruz, who had won the seat easily six years before, was expected to prevail easily in re-election until mid-October of that year. It was only from that late point that polls showed the race competitive. O’Rourke started receiving high-profile editorial endorsements: from the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, and the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram.
In the end, notwithstanding the excitement, Cruz prevailed: 50.9% to 48.3%. Still, the publicity catapulted O’Rourke into the national spotlight.
Not Exactly Center Stage
As Kyle Jaeger has written for Marijuana Moment, the marijuana issue wasn’t “exactly center stage” for that 2018 campaign. It took a back seat to such issues as immigration, gun rights, and health care, in all of which each candidate took a position standard within his own political party.
Still, the issue came up: sometimes in a humorous context. O’Rourke, once an aspiring musician, performed on stage with country-western legend Willie Nelson during the campaign against Cruz. Together, Nelson and O’Rourke sang, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” The issue also came up when the Cruz campaign tried to use the old El Paso resolution as a smear.
O’Rourke in fact received an endorsement from NORML’s political action committee.
The executive director of NORML PAC said that O’Rourke in the Senate would be “an outspoken and indispensable ally in reforming out federal laws relating to marijuana and fight to finally end our failed prohibitionist policies.”
In a 2016 “Report Card,” NORML gave Rep. O’Rourke a B+.
Albertson, Bethany, “Race for the Senate 2018: Key Issues in Texas,” Brookings.edu. November 1, 2018.
Benson, Eric. “Does Beto O’Rourke Stand a Chance Against Ted Cruz?” Texas Monthly. January 2018.
Beto O’Rourke. “Video: O’Rourke Talks Marijuana Laws on Roadtrip,” El Paso Times, March 15, 2017. (Courtesy O’Rourke’s Facebook.)
Jaeger, Kyle, “Marijuana in Texas: Where Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke Stand on Legalization.” Marijuana Moment. September 10, 2018.
NORML Staff, “2016 Texas Scorecard,” NORML: Working to Reform Marijuana Laws. July 2016. https://norml.org/congressional-scorecard/texas
Wang, Jackie. “Beto O’Rourke Belts Out a Pro-Pot Tune at Willie Nelson’s July 4th Picnic.” The Dallas Morning News. July 6, 2018.