By Rob Hotakainen

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — After her husband, Bob, died recently, 85-year-old Ann Lee of Houston is eager to get back to work, which means promoting the legalization of marijuana.

Lee, executive director of a group called Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, went to the state capitol in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday as part of a citizen lobby day, urging lawmakers to approve bills to decriminalize marijuana and allow the drug to be used for medical purposes.

Next, she’ll head to Washington, where she’ll have a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians from throughout the country.

“We think we can make a difference in the whole Republican structure if we pursue this. … Bob will be with me all the way — he’ll always be with me on this,” Lee said.

Long dominated by the GOP, Texas may seem an unlikely battleground for the next round of marijuana wars. But pot lobbyists say they’ve got a realistic shot at getting state laws changed this year, particularly with allies like Lee.

“She is a fiery lady who has no problem speaking her mind,” said Jax Finkel, deputy director of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. She said Lee breaks the stereotype of a marijuana activist because of her grandmotherly image and her lifelong history as a Republican who once opposed legalization.

“You know you’re not going to argue with Grandma — because Grandma has a good argument and she knows what she’s talking about,” Finkel said.

Legalization opponents aren’t too worried about losing ground in the Lone Star State.

“Texas in play? That’s a fantasy,” said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group.

Pro-pot groups are targeting Texas after the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group based in Washington, commissioned a poll last year that found 58 percent of Texans backing medical marijuana and saying pot should be regulated and treated similarly to alcohol.

“The times they are a-changin‘,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Pot lobbyists want Texas lawmakers to pass three bills.

The first, which would decrease the penalty to $100 for possession of less than an ounce of pot, got its initial reading last week on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives and was sent to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

A second would add Texas to the list of 23 other states that allow marijuana to be used as medicine.

And a third — the most ambitious and a long shot at best — would set up a system to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use, similar to laws approved by voters in Washington state and Colorado in 2012.

Even if no legislation is approved this year, legalization backers say the shifting battleground to a red Southern state shows that momentum for legalization is building across the nation.

“When there is cannabis law reform talk in Texas, you know the end of the national prohibition can’t be too far away,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington-based NORML, who went to Austin and Houston earlier this month to lobby for the bills.

With Texas just one of many states now debating marijuana-related issues, O’Keefe said that 2015 could be a “record-breaking year for marijuana policy reform in state legislatures.”

She said nearly 20 other states are expected to consider bills to tax and regulate marijuana this year, including Rhode Island, Vermont, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey and New York. And she said at least 18 states are expected to take up medical marijuana bills, including Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

O’Keefe said it’s clear that more Republicans are joining the cause, noting that 53 percent of Alaskans voted in November to back legalizing recreational marijuana.

“More Republicans are realizing it’s not in their party’s interest to be on the losing side of history,” O’Keefe said.

Sabet said the strategy of pro-pot lobbyists is to try to sell a message that legalization is inevitable.

“They have a long way to go for that to be true,” the anti-legalization activist said. “They may have gained momentum in the past two years, but the finish line is a long way away.”

Lee, who got her start in Republican politics when Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, said she’s hoping that marijuana legalization becomes a big issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. That’s why she’s going to CPAC, an event that’s expected to draw several prospective Republican candidates.

Lee said the prohibition of marijuana is “an affront to Republican values” of personal responsibility and smaller government.

“If you’re a true conservative, you do not support prohibition,” she said. “And if you are pro-life, you cannot be anti-medical marijuana. Pro-life has to be more than just saying no to abortion.”

Lee said she doesn’t use marijuana herself, but she and her husband became convinced of its medical value in 1990 when their son, Richard, a paraplegic, discovered that it helped ease his severe nerve pain. Richard Lee eventually moved to California, becoming a leader in promoting medical marijuana.

Ann Lee recently had a memorial service for her husband, Bob, who died peacefully at age 90 surrounded by his family. The couple were married for 63 years.

A former schoolteacher, Lee said it’s important for her to keep educating the public about marijuana and to not give up the fight for legalization, so that it can be used to help children with epilepsy or autism.

“Doesn’t that just show the kind of personality she has?” asked Finkel. “She’s not going to lay down. She’s going to keep fighting, even though she just lost her husband. I mean, bless her. She’s awesome.”

Lee said her late husband would have wanted her to keep going, too.

“The best thing I can do to honor his memory is to continue with what we believe should be done,” Lee said. “We’ve made quite a bit of headway in Texas — we’re hoping to have a greater effect this year. It’s a message that has to get out.”

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