The unwieldy field of Democratic Senate candidates saw mostly eye to eye on legalizing marijuana at a televised debate Tuesday, drawing attention to an issue on which they may be a bit closer to the center of gravity of public opinion in Texas than is U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the man they are hoping to unseat.


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"So let’s do it; let’s free the weed," said Sema Hernandez, a community organizer from Pasadena, making her second run for Senate, and the only one of the eleven candidates at the debate at KVUE TV in Austin to acknowledge her own marijuana use, unprompted.


"I can say I’m probably the only one up here who has ever smoked marijuana," Hernandez said at the 90-minute forum co-hosted by KUT radio and The Texas Tribune, which drew all but one of the 12 Democratic Senate candidates competing in the March 3 primary. Early voting began Tuesday.


Sema Hernandez just says she's probably the only one on stage who has smoked marijuana. I seriously, seriously doubt that, though no one audibly corrects her. #txsen #VoteTexas

— Jim Henson (@jamesrhenson) February 19, 2020

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who throughout the debate tweeted polling contextualizing the issues being discussed, tweeted that Hernandez’s assertion was dubious: "Sema Hernandez just says she’s probably the only one on stage who has smoked marijuana. I seriously, seriously doubt that, though no one audibly corrects her."


Legalizing marijuana is an issue with appeal to Democrats, younger voters and libertarian Republicans.


The University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll last February found that 20% of Texans felt that marijuana should never be legal, and 26% felt it should only be legal for medical purposes. But 32% said the possession of small amounts of marijuana should be legal and 22% said that possession of any amount of marijuana should be legal.


Texas attitudes on Legalization of #Marijuana (February 2019 @UTAustin / @TexasTribune Poll) https://t.co/TZUzDUVqoR via @TxPolProject #txsen #txlege #VoteTexas pic.twitter.com/8sGqGu3S8o

— Jim Henson (@jamesrhenson) February 19, 2020

The party split was clear, with 68% of Democrats, 54% of Independents and 40% of Republicans supporting some form of legalization.


In June 2019, 69% of Texans supported reducing punishment for marijuana possession to a ticket and a fine.


But Henson cautioned that the salience of marijuana as an election issue may be low for most voters, though apparently not for viewers of the KVUE debate.


The general comity on ending any legal prohibition on smoking pot came two-thirds through the 90-minute debate when the moderator, KVUE’s Ashley Goudeau, said it was time to take audience questions.


"Earlier in the debate we asked you to vote on a topic - healthcare, guns, immigration, marijuana or race relations - and 38% of you said you wanted to hear a question on marijuana," she said.


Cornyn, who as chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, wields power on the issue, has been skeptical about the seemingly inexorable movement toward normalizing marijuana use.


In October, he held a hearing to examine the health risks associated with the drug.


"Despite growing acceptance and accessibility of this drug and its derivatives, I believe we lack definitive evidence on the short and long term health implications of marijuana use," Cornyn said. "That’s especially true for vulnerable populations like adolescents, pregnant women and people suffering from mental health issues."


"We’re hearing a lot of the same happy talk with regard to marijuana and none of the facts that we need to understand about the public health impact of marijuana use," he said.


But with the except Adrian Ocegueda, a Dallas investment adviser who said the issue was "honestly, not a high priority for me in my agenda," the other ten candidates in attendance were in general agreement that marijuana laws had done far more harm than good.


"I absolutely support legalizing marijuana, in addition, I want to make sure we're looking at the long-term harm the drug war has caused hundreds of thousands of people in our country, especially communities of color," said Austin activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez. She said that former Republican House Speaker John Boehner now sits on the board of a cannabis investment corporation, "profiting off of this very same product where people are sitting behind bars across this country, including in states where marijuana has been legalized."


"The war on drugs," she said, "we all know has been a racist war."


Annie Garcia, an attorney from Houston, said she was the only candidate to attend a recent marijuana forum put on by the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.


"If we legalize marijuana, we abate human suffering in three ways," Garcia said, by easing pain, dramatically reducing jail populations and collecting tax revenues that can be devoted "to social welfare programs, such as early childhood intervention here in Texas."


"We need to legalize it in this country, and we need to make certain that the taxes that we place on on the sales are used for education ... and any other social programs," said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.


"Well, we declared a war on drugs a long time ago, and we lost, and we need to admit that and move forward," said former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston. "During the war on drugs we decided that we would make addicts into criminals and we've done ourselves no favors whatsoever."


"I'm sure we're going to have to put safeguards in place and there will be some abuse of marijuana and we will have to deal with that," Bell said. "But meanwhile, it's not going away and it could be an extraordinary cash crop for farmers here in Texas."


MJ Hegar, the decorated Air Force helicopter pilot from Round Rock, looked at the issue through the prism of veterans suffering from PTSD, for whom, she said. marijuana could have palliative properties.


Amanda Edwards, an attorney from Houston, where she was until recently an at-large member of the City Council, said she favored legalization, "but I also think we need to do an overhaul ... making sure that our banking practices are consistent."


She explained that, amid the patchwork of marijuana laws across the country, some banks won’t accept proceeds from marijuana sales, and "we need to make sure that our banking laws will allow that interstate commerce to take place.


Jack Daniel Foster Jr., a teacher from Baytown, also endorsed legalization but offered a cautionary preface: "Yes, first of all, let me say it, you should be high on life. But, you know, that's OK. I'm definitely for legalizing marijuana. I have no problem with that but you have to respect the city ordinances just so people would not, you know, get carried away with smoking marijuana."