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Willie Nelson's cannabis conference plants the seed of social justice, wellness

On Willie Nelson’s 88th birthday and the final day of his inaugural cannabis conference, the Texas Senate began work on a House-passed bill allowing holstered handguns to be carried in public without a state-issued permit.  

The country music legend reflected on the development with wry humor during his keynote interview on April 29.

“I just saw where in Texas now, it's going to be legal to carry a gun around openly. I said, ‘Well, at least now let us light up a joint so we won't be armed and dangerous,’” Nelson quipped. 

Nelson’s remarks during Luck Summit: Planting the Seed came at the end of a virtual birthday bash that recapped highlights from three days of panels, musical performances, sketch comedy and more. The closing event was an even mix of entertainment and call-to-action.

On Willie Nelson's 88th birthday, the Texas country music legend delivered a keynote interview to close his new cannabis conference, Luck Summit: Planting the Seed.

More:Willie Nelson once tried to smoke weed on the roof of the Texas governor's mansion

Like the conference itself, the celebration centered the social justice arguments for legalizing marijuana and ending the war on drugs, which for decades has disproportionately affected communities of color.

“We know that the drug war was built around the idea of othering people, of creating excuses to criminalize people who were undesirable, or who were agitating for social change, who were trying to build their own collective liberation at time,” Betty Aldworth, director of communications for Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, said in a clip from a panel on the history of marijuana criminalization, which was played near the top of the party. 

In 1994, Nixon advisor John Erlichman told journalist Dan Baum that, during his 1968 campaign, the disgraced former president “had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people." 

"We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Erlichman told Baum. 

Beto O'Rourke, seen here at Texas Tribune Fest in 2019, said during the Luck Summit that he didn't think of cannabis reform as an important political issue until cartel-related violence in El Paso's Mexican sister city, Juarez, in the early 2000s led him to research the history of drug enforcement.

Beto O'Rourke discusses Texas marijuana reform in keynote speech

The conference took a hard look at the ongoing repercussions of those policies. During his own keynote address on Wednesday, former presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke noted that Texas “has the largest incarcerated population in the country and our country already has the largest incarcerated population in the world.”

Long before Nixon's war on drugs, O’Rourke’s home city El Paso became the first in the country to outlaw marijuana, O’Rourke said. 

“It did so not on any scientific or medical grounds," O'Rourke said. Instead, the policy was "an effort to stoke anxiety and fear about Mexican nationals, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to the United States,” he said. 

O’Rourke said the El Paso City Council used “this idea that Mexicans who used marijuana would become murderous and criminal and become a threat to white Americans” to pass a law prohibiting marijuana in 1915. 

Uneven marijuana enforcement in minority communities continues to this day, with devastating consequences. In his opening keynote, Steven Hawkins, Interim president of the U.S. Cannabis Council, reminded viewers that the Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016 said a smell of marijuana in Castile's car made him fear for his life.  

According to Austin police data last year, of 432 marijuana citations issued in 2019, 201 were issued to Hispanic people and 163 to African Americans, making up 84% of all citations. (Austin City Council voted to end the enforcement of low-level misdemeanor marijuana possession in January 2020. Former Austin police Chief Brian Manley revised department policies to comply with the council's resolution in July.

Beyond educating people about the history and discriminatory underpinnings of current drug policy, the conference touted the potential health and wellness benefits of a plant that Nelson refers to as medicine that saved his life. 

More:'It's all cosmic': Willie Nelson talks God and pot

“When I was smoking cigarettes and drinking a lot of whiskey and doing everything else, I wasn't healthy. I was dying on my feet,” Nelson said during his keynote. Swapping his other vices for cannabis was life-changing. “I can tell the difference now. I started taking better care of myself. I started back doing martial arts and running and things like that,” he said. 

Former Texas running back Ricky Williams said he "started to think about the possibilities of cannabis for helping athletes, but really anyone dealing with chronic pain" after he was able to wean himself off post-practice pain pills by using small amounts of cannabis.

UT Heisman winner Ricky Williams says marijuana helped with chronic pain

Former NFL player and Texas Longhorns Heisman Trophy-winner Ricky Williams echoed Nelson’s sentiments during an interview at the conference. Williams’ sports career began in high school where he pitched on the baseball team and played football. 

“I learned at a young age that if you take a couple Aleve before you play, you're gonna be in a lot less pain,” he said. 

By the time he was a sophomore in college, he began to suffer adverse side effects. Unable to keep food down, he went to a doctor who diagnosed him with an ulcer. Later, as he began to consume cannabis as part of his post-practice routine, he realized he didn’t need the pain pills anymore. 

“I decided to do an experiment. I wanted to see how long I could go into the season without having to take a shot or get pain pills,” he said. He added additional time warming up before practice to his regimen, and he began to consume a small amount of cannabis each night to unwind. 

“I made it through 16 of the 17 weeks of the season that year without having to take anything,” he said. 

The conference recap included an update on the Texas Legislature, where legalization is a long way off, but multiple bills on the docket for this session aim to reduce penalties for minor drug offenses and expand Texas’ medical marijuana program.

More:Efforts to expand legal marijuana use in Texas will feature in the upcoming legislative session.

In between panel clips, the birthday bash included performance segments, everyone from art rockers the Flaming Lips to Austin’s Jackie Venson. It also featured a series of hilarious sketches chronicling Nelson’s history with weed. In the re-enactments, Nelson was played by the likes of Ethan Hawke, Jay Chandrasekhar and local honky tonk legend Ray Benson. 

It was a feel-good celebration for an iconic Texan who is spending his golden years feeling pretty good. Nelson believes he is a living testament to the wellness powers of cannabis.  

“Look in my life over the past several years,” Nelson said. “My health is still good and I'm still in good condition. I can still sing. I can play. I wish I could go do it tonight, you know? I think people can see me and realize that, you know, whatever you're doing can't be that bad. He's 88 years old.”