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marijuana

The people may have spoken, but who’s listening?

How much respect to city councils owe voter-approved referenda?

Voters in two Central Texas cities overwhelmingly passed propositions earlier this month that would stop citations and arrests for low-level marijuana offenses within city limits. But elected officials in Bell County are pushing back.

On Tuesday, Harker Heights City Council voted to repeal the measure, saying that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was inconsistent with state law, as marijuana possession remains illegal statewide and federally. The City Council in Killeen agreed to put its decriminalization measure on hold as elected officials there weigh whether to repeal, amend or green light the ordinance that passed on Election Day.

Neither ballot measure legalizes marijuana. Instead, they prevent people from being cited or arrested for having up to 4 ounces of the drug. The propositions also prohibit city police officers from stopping someone because they smelled marijuana.

David Bass, the founder of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, told City Council on Tuesday that the people of Killeen have spoken. Regardless of the legality of marijuana, the ordinance was clear and he said the council should respect voters’ decision.

“What I know is that the people of Killeen voted overwhelmingly for our police to stop arresting people for small amounts of cannabis,” Bass said. “We should listen to the will of the people of Killeen.”

Shirley Fleming, a former Killeen city councilwoman, told the Harker Heights City Council that repealing the ordinance could make residents feel like their vote doesn’t matter.

“If you stomp on this, a lot of people will say, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’” Fleming said. “Let’s respect their vote.”

See here for some background. With all due respect to Ms. Fleming, and speaking as someone who supports these measures and would vote for a similar one if it were to be on my ballot someday, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. All of the city council members here were also elected by the people, and if they believe that the ordinances that were adopted without their input are bad policy, then it’s consistent with their mandate as elected officials to take action as they see fit. I wouldn’t have done it this way – some public hearings would have been a better way to begin – and if I were a dissenting council member I’d have approached it from the perspective of modification rather than repeal. But they can do this, and I don’t see it as necessarily ignoring the will of the people but as different mandates.

Look at it this way: A President gets elected, begins to implement a policy agenda, and then two years later the voters elect a Congressional majority from the opposing party. Both were duly elected with a valid mandate, it’s just that those mandates conflict with each other. This isn’t a perfect analogy – the opposition Congress and the incumbent President were surely campaigning directly against each other, and the new Congress or the existing President may well not reflect a true majority of voters for various reasons – but the idea is the same. The voters may now render a judgment on those city council members in the next election, and that may or may not provide clarity. That’s just the nature of our system.

To be clear, I think the city councils of Killeen and Harker Heights should have started from the position that the voters made a valid statement that they should engage with seriously. They do have the latitude to make changes, and if they want to put themselves on the line they can act in opposition. I can easily imagine scenarios where the voters might approve something unjust, where the moral imperative would be to undo the damage. I can also easily understand the frustration of any voter who worked to pass these referenda only to see their work bulldozed by the same government officials who had acted as the obstacle they sought to overcome. All I’m saying is that it’s more complex than “the voters have spoken”. I’ll try to remember that if it happens here.

Election 2022 miscellania: Marijuana, Austin Mayor, CRT

Three items of interest for you. First up, several local initiatives to decriminalize marijuana were successful on Tuesday.

By the end of Election Day, five Texas cities have voted to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.

After Austin voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana in May, Ground Game Texas — the progressive group behind that effort — successfully worked with local organizations and pushed for similar measures to appear on the ballots of Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights for the midterms cycle.

Voters in these cities have now shown strong support for the proposals at the polls.

The campaign saw the highest level of support in San Marcos — home to Texas State University — with nearly 82% of the votes. Denton, which has several university campuses, saw more than 70% of the votes backing the proposition.

In Killeen, known for its proximity to military base Fort Hood, close to 70% of voters approved the proposition. Elgin, just outside of Austin, saw almost 75% of votes in support of the reform. And on the low end, more than 60% of voters in Harker Heights in Bell County casted ballots in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

“These meaningful reforms will keep people out of jail and save scarce public resources for more important public safety needs,” said Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas and a former Democrat congressional candidate. “We’re extremely happy with our results.”

Like Austin’s ordinance, the successful propositions establish city ordinances that end low-level enforcement, including citations and arrests for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana and related drug paraphernalia, in most cases. They also largely ban using city funds and staff to test substances for THC, the cannabis plant’s chemical that gets users high.

[…]

Ultimately, Ground Game Texas hoped to use the campaign to boost turnout, especially among young voters.

“We wanted to use workers, wages and weed to engage new voters,” Siegel said.

Looking ahead, Ground Game Texas will continue working with on-the-ground groups to place progressive measures on local ballots. They aim to put the measure along with several other propositions, including abortion decriminalization, in front of San Antonio voters in May 2023. And similar efforts are likely to pop up in other big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston in the 2024 elections, Siegel added.

“We’re hoping that we can prove not only that these issues are popular, but they also boosted turnout in the communities that are on the ballot,” he said. “And in the days following this election, we’re going to be having lots of conversations with folks about the next cycle.”

See here for some background. As noted there, I’m not sure what the practical effect of this will be, and I worry about legislative backlash just because that’s the world we live in now. I’ll be very interested to see if there is any evidence that this drove turnout, because Lord knows we could have used more of it if it did. And while I’m glad to see that there’s interest in bringing this to Houston, please remember that we already have several charter amendments on the ballot next year, which means either this would have to happen then or you’ll need to wait until at least 2025, since there’s a mandatory two-year wait after a successful charter amendment election. Hope y’all are already engaging with folks here about this, Ground Game Texas, so there are no unpleasant surprises for anyone.

Item two: There will be a runoff for Mayor of Austin between two familiar faces.

Austin’s next mayor was not decided Tuesday, as a tight race between Celia Israel and Kirk Watson will continue into a runoff in December.

To win the race outright, a candidate would have had to earn more than half of all votes as of Tuesday. Israel took 40% and Watson 35% of the vote, according to final but unofficial results. They were separated by more than 15,000 votes.

Jennifer Virden, the only other candidate who conducted a significant campaign, earned 18%.

Three other candidates received limited support. Phil Brual received 2%, and Gary Spellman and Anthony Bradshaw each received 1%.

In total, 304,000 votes were recorded.

Heading into the day, political insiders who analyzed the election said they expected the race to go to a runoff, as voters seemed split between Watson, the former Austin mayor and state senator, and Israel, a sitting state representative. Although Watson outraised Israel $1.3 million to $409,000, it was Israel who enjoyed momentum heading into Tuesday with recent endorsements from the American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I like both of them and wish the eventual winner all the best.

And finally, a small bit of good news on the school board hysteria front:

A very welcome reversal from last year, in a different political climate. Well done, Round Rock and Leander.

The Biden marijuana pardons

A pretty big deal.

Calling the criminalization of marijuana a “failed approach,” President Joe Biden announced a pardon of all federal marijuana possession charges Thursday — and urged governors to follow suit with state-level convictions for marijuana possession.

The federal pardon will affect about 6,500 people, The New York Times reported, but the vast majority of marijuana possession crimes are charged on the state level, not in a federal case.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday about Biden’s announcement.

Abbott’s gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, was quick to announce his support for the president’s action.

“When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

According to the Texas law, the governor can issue pardons only if a majority of Board of Pardons and Paroles members make such a recommendation in writing.

[…]

This year through August, Texas prosecutors filed more than 14,000 misdemeanor pot possession charges, so far leading to more than 5,000 convictions, according to statewide court data. Pot possession is a misdemeanor for up to 4 ounces, and a felony for quantities beyond that.

Marijuana prosecutions dropped dramatically after 2019, when Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and as a result complicated how law enforcement can determine if something is illegal cannabis. In 2018, for example, nearly 50,000 misdemeanor marijuana charges were filed.

I assume that a relatively large portion of the 6,500 people who will receive the federal pardon are in Texas; we’re a big state with a significant non-white population, so just on the numbers we’ll be home to a lot of the beneficiaries of this. I haven’t seen what that number might be, nor do I know how many people could be pardoned for state offenses, if Greg Abbott were so moved. We know that loosening marijuana laws polls well in Texas, though it’s not clear to me if these pardons would be as popular; my guess is they’d have significant support but maybe not as much as expanding medical marijuana access or decriminalizing pot for recreational use. This announcement may help charge up the youth vote, but again it’s hard to say by how much or what the net effect might be. We’re unlikely to get any insight from polling at this point.

The President’s actions were right on the merits and I daresay good on the politics. They were sufficiently long-awaited that I’d say some people had expected them to never happen. As is usually the case with federal action, Texas will get the smallest possible benefit from it because our state leaders won’t allow for any more than that. I assume I don’t need to tell you what we could do to affect that.

Marijuana and the Ag Commissioner race

It’s a clear choice, though to be fair on this one issue it’s not as clear as with some other offices. But really, anytime the choice includes “not Sid Miller”, it’s pretty damn clear.

Susan Hays

The first time Susan Hays tried marijuana, she was a “teenage hell-raiser” hanging out with a couple dozen friends, drinking beers and swimming until the early morning in Pecan Bayou, near Brownwood, her hometown.

It was “Mexican hell-weed,” Hays remembered in a recent phone interview of the 3 joints her friends bought for $5. She didn’t know then how to smoke properly — to inhale — so she didn’t get high. All it did was put her to sleep in the backseat of the car.

Now, Hays is a weed evangelist of sorts and the Democratic candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner. She has made medical marijuana expansion, decriminalization and legalization the centerpiece of her campaign as she seeks to become the first Democrat in 30 years to win statewide office.

The issue is a politically powerful one, and the winds of public opinion seem to be blowing in her direction. Although Texas is among the most restrictive states in the country for accessing marijuana, it’s available medicinally in all surrounding states, and it’s fully legal for adult recreational use in neighboring New Mexico and nearby Colorado. A recent UT/Tyler poll showed 55 percent of Texans support legalization and more than 70 percent supported medical marijuana.Incumbent Sid Miller, a Trump-endorsed Republican who Hays will face in the November election, has also advocated for expansion of medical marijuana in Texas.

In an op-ed over the summer, Miller said he wants the governor, the Legislature and others to “come together and set aside our political differences to have an honest conversation about cannabis,” without stating specifically what he’s in favor of or how he’d like to see the law changed.

“In terms of specifics on how to achieve this, I have said that I am willing to work with anyone on any idea that puts these products in the right hands — and keeps them out of the wrong hands. That will be the challenge in the next legislative session. I see part of my role as that of an advocate for those who are suffering; I’ll be urging all involved to not worry about who gets credit for what — let’s just get the job done,” Miller said in a statement sent via email from a spokesman.

[…]

Hays offers a very clear and detailed vision of her preferred policies.

Current Texas law is “bass-ackwards,” she likes to say, with a patchwork of different city and town regulations and confusing and anti-scientific state laws. Hays believes from studying the rollout in other states that marijuana policy is a “three-legged stool,” encompassing medicinal access, decriminalization and legalization. If any of the legs are neglected, the industry is unstable, she says.

Medical access needs to be handled carefully to ensure people with health needs are able to access carefully regulated marijuana products that cater to their specific needs, she said. If the crop was outright legalized without the medical infrastructure being developed, “stoner-bro culture” creates a system in which dispensaries try to out-do each other by making the strongest pot products they can, “like if you went in a liquor store and all you could buy was Everclear,” Hays said.

Decriminalization is important, she said, but if it isn’t accompanied by legalization, the black market is likely to grow. Many Texas counties, including most of the state’s largest, have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana, such as Harris, Dallas, Travis and Bexar counties.

Another important element is packaging, which Hays says should be child-safe and should include detailed information about the chemical makeup of the product. Different strains of marijuana (Hays’ favorite is called Acapulco Gold) can have different effects on people when ingested or smoked, for instance.

Requiring that information to be posted on the package allows people to find marijuana strains that cater to their specific needs, Hays argues, be it spurring the appetites of chemotherapy patients, helping veterans struggling with PTSD to overcome insomnia or helping elderly people with chronic arthritic pain.

Miller’s position, recently stated, is definitely more nuanced and aware of public opinion than the likes of Dan Patrick. It doesn’t have any substance to it, though. Hays, on the other hand, really knows what she’s talking about. She’d be a leader in implementing sound and compassionate public policy that would also give a hand to hemp farmers, who could really use a boost, instead of just someone spouting generalities. Also, too, and we cannot emphasize this enough, she’s not Sid Miller. We need 100% less Sid Miller in elected office. The fact that we can replace him with someone who would be objectively good at the job is a bonus. We should grab that.

Houston get a medical marijuana pick-up location

For those who will need it.

Houston’s first permanent pick-up location for medical marijuana opened Tuesday, giving patients another option for obtaining their prescription cannabis.

Texas Original, the state’s largest medical marijuana provider, opened a 1,776-square-foot facility on Houston Avenue in First Ward. The location offers a full range of cannabis products, including gummies, tinctures and lozenges.

The brick-and-mortar location offers another option to patients, Texas Original CEO Morris Denton said. Most patients get their prescription delivered to their homes, but they need to be present to sign for the delivery and verify their identity. At the new location, they can arrange to pick up their prescription when it’s convenient.

“From a patient’s perspective, it makes it a lot more convenient and a lot more flexible,” Denton said. “You can come by when it makes the most amount of sense for you.”

The pick-up process will be similar to home delivery. Patients will need to provide their prescription and ID and answer a few basic questions to verify their identity, Denton said. The process will take less than five minutes.

State regulations prohibit Texas Originals from storing medical marijuana at the new location, so the Houston location will not be able to take walk-in orders for same-day pick-up, Denton said. Any prescriptions that are scheduled for pick-up will need to be shipped each day from the company’s Austin dispensary.

Texas Original has 13 pick-up locations across the state, but many of them – including in Katy and North Houston – offer once-a-week pick-up at places, including doctor’s offices. The new Houston location is the company’s first permanent storefront, patients can also pick up from the Austin dispensary.

That was from late June. You can see from the picture in the story that it’s next to Cafe Brussels on Houston Avenue. This seems like as good a time as any to note that the Texas Republican Party’s scary and authoritarian-loving platform opposes recreational marijuana legalization, and as we have discussed as long as Dan Patrick has power we’re never going to get any real expansion of medical marijuana or any incremental reform of marijuana criminalization. Just so you know.

Legal pot may mean less driving while stoned

So says one study.

A new study has determined that people in states where cannabis is legal are less likely to drive while stoned than people in states where weed remains criminalized.

The study, published this month in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, analyzed self-reported data from a national survey on cannabis use. Respondents in states where cannabis has been legalized for medical or recreational use said they were less likely to get behind the wheel within three hours of consuming the substance than those in states where pot is legally prohibited.

The results appear to contradict claims that decriminalizing weed will lead to upswings in impaired driving, a criticism sometimes voiced by anti-reform lawmakers.

The study considered Texas a state where cannabis is illegal since researchers collected their survey data between August 2016 and May 2017, a time before the legislature expanded its medical marijuana program to include more than a narrow range of ailments.

Researchers said the results suggest that states with legalized cannabis have done a better job educating residents about potential dangers of driving while impaired. Labeling requirements on legal cannabis also may help by providing warnings that deter people from getting behind the wheel.

“In legal states, cannabis users may receive more information about the risks of cannabis use from sources like physicians who issue medical cannabis cards or dispensary staff than users living in neither states,” the study’s authors wrote.

One exception in the findings was that medical cannabis patients who report frequent use had driving behavior on par with pot users in states where pot is illegal.

The study is here, and it’s too wonky for me to try to evaluate. It is just one study, and it is of self-reported behavior, though as they note in the study that has statistical validity. But it’s still just one study, and there’s clearly a lot of room for more analysis. It’s a starting point for the inevitable claims that legalizing pot will unleash countless stoned drivers on the roads.

Not just Beto for marijuana legalization

The two Democrats in the runoff for Attorney General are also on board.

As the May 24 runoff approaches, both Democrats in the runoff for Texas Attorney General have doubled down on their promises to legalize cannabis in the state.

Rochelle Garza and Joe Jaworski made it clear in the runup to the primary that they’re in favor of legalization, and in the past few days both have taken to Twitter make sure voters know where they stand.

Garza, a Brownsville lawyer and former staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, finished first in the primary, but didn’t secure the majority needed to avoid a runoff with Jaworski, a former Galveston mayor and grandson of Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

“It’s time to legalize the sale and use of recreational cannabis in Texas,” Garza tweeted Saturday. “Nearly 70% of Texans support legalization, and they deserve an Attorney General who will work with them to advance our priorities.”

On Tuesday, Jaworksi tweeted that legalizing cannabis is an important element of criminal justice reform, throwing in the hashtag #legalizecannabis to leave no doubt where he stands.

“How many young lives, principally lives of color, are we going to put in private prisons so ppl can make a profit from their incarceration?” he asked. “We can’t have that — that is a sick society.”

See here for some background. The AG doesn’t play a direct role in the legislation process, so while their positions are appreciated they’re not necessarily needed. That said, Ken Paxton is another big opponent of marijuana – you know, because he’s such an upstanding and law-abiding citizen himself – and even in the absence of legalization I’m sure there are things that the state’s top law enforcement officer could do from an executive policy position to improve things. There’s only one way to find out, and while pot legalization has got to be pretty far down on the list of good reasons to vote Paxton’s sorry ass out of office, it is on there, and we should be sure to point it out.

Can Beto legalize pot?

He’s gonna try. It’s not entirely up to him, though.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke is making Texans a promise: If they elect him as governor, he’ll legalize marijuana.

Shortly after his resounding victory in Tuesday night’s primary, O’Rourke asked a crowd of supporters in Fort Worth: “Don’t you think it’s time we legalize marijuana in the state of Texas? I do too. We can get that done.”

He reiterated his position again on Twitter in the days following.

The issue could come up often on the campaign trail later this year, as O’Rourke prepares for a face-off against Gov. Greg Abbott in November. Abbott, a Republican, has only gone as far as to suggest the drug should be decriminalized.

[…]

The November general election is widely expected to benefit Republicans, and Abbott is the favorite in the gubernatorial contest. But if O’Rourke pulled off an upset, he’d still have to work with the conservative state Legislature — including [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick, potentially — on any proposals.

A June 2021 poll by the University of Texas at Austin found that 60 percent of Texans believe possession of small or large amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.

Another 27 percent said the drug should only be allowed for medical purposes, and 13 percent said it should be outlawed entirely.

The story correctly notes that Dan Patrick is the main obstacle to any pot decriminalization/legalization bills passing, though in a world where Beto gets elected Governor, it seems likely to me that Patrick would also lose. (Pause for a moment to enjoy the thought.) He’d still definitely face a Republican Senate and very likely a Republican House, and it would be up to them to pass a bill that he could sign. Beto is correct to note that Republicans like weed too, but that is not the same as saying that a Republican legislature will be willing to give the first Democratic governor in almost 30 years a signature win on an item he campaigned on. I mean, I’m old enough to remember when Republicans liked the idea of a market-based private-insurance national health care law, and we know how that went.

I think if we get to that point Beto can certainly use the pot issue as a means of applying pressure on the Republicans, and it might serve as leverage for cutting a deal. I wouldn’t rule anything out now, but in the absence of a Dem trifecta, which we emphatically will not get, everything will be deeply politicized, and whatever people (especially Republicans) are for or against now doesn’t matter once Governor Beto makes an issue of it. Let’s hope we get to have that fight, but do keep some perspective about it. Reform Austin has more.

Oklahoma’s experience with medical marijuana

A good read.

Inside an old metal building off a quiet stretch of U.S. 77, Josh Blevins walked among rows of fragrant marijuana plants basking below carefully calibrated light. Blevins, a former construction engineer from Texas, bought this former scrap yard just north of the farming town of Lexington, population 2,200, after a statewide ballot initiative legalized medical marijuana about four years ago.

Since then, dispensaries have become as ubiquitous as gas stations and churches in much of Oklahoma, where state officials have licensed more than 12,000 marijuana-related businesses and about 1 in 10 people now own medical marijuana cards.

Blevins, 36, has capitalized on the boom, building another 10,000-square-foot warehouse and brand new office space just down the road from the former scrap yard. Like many commercial growers, he created his own supply chain from seed to sale, stocking the shelves of his two dispensaries — both named Twister Roo — in Moore and Noble. It has proven to be both profitable and a learning opportunity, Blevins said, as he eyes expansion to other states with upcoming marijuana ballot initiatives.

“What we’re doing here is kind of building the picture that we want to duplicate in other states,” Blevins said. “Just copy and paste.”

But while Oklahoma has become a kind of nirvana for growers and producers, who enjoy a relatively low startup cost in comparison to other states, it has some lawmakers leery because of lax regulation. Officials with the overwhelmed Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority said they’ve been able to inspect only a quarter of licensed marijuana businesses so far.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said during his State of the State address on Tuesday that voters were misled by the language on the 2018 ballot initiative and it has “tied our hands as we regulate the industry.”

“This is causing major problems in our communities,” he added, “and we must get it under control.”

Stitt said the relatively low cost of getting a business license and the lack of a cap on the number of growers has fueled a black market in Oklahoma that may require legislation to reform.

“While we can’t change the past, we can learn from it and improve our future,” Stitt said. “We’re getting the right leaders in place and untying their hands to enforce the laws.”

[…]

The state presented a rare opportunity for legalization in 2018, when medical marijuana backers garnered enough signatures to put one of the most accessible medical marijuana initiatives in the country on the ballot, bypassing the conservative Legislature. The result: It costs $2,500 to apply for a business, cultivation or transportation license in Oklahoma — compared to $100,000 or more in neighboring Arkansas.

“This is a system that is set up to basically create opportunities for small businesses,” said Morgan Fox, the political director of NORML, a national cannabis advocacy organization. “There’s a lot of room for people to start up businesses without a tremendous amount of capital.”

Lured by the state’s low fees and relative lack of regulation, Paulie Wood, a former California grower and the CEO of Kannabiz Monkeeyz, said he decided to close his West Coast operations about two years ago because of the “insane overtaxation” hampering his business.

In California, he paid more than $100,000 a year in state and local taxes to operate two cultivation sites even after one outdoor crop was destroyed by smoke and ash following the Oak Fire in Mendocino County in September 2020. He pays a fraction of that cost in Oklahoma.

“In Oklahoma you can literally start a grow for under $10,000, where in California you’re going to be out hundreds of thousands of dollars to just get started,” Wood said. “They call it the wild, wild west of cannabis in a good way. As a whole, it’s the nicest, friendliest state we could ever want to be in.”

Oklahoma is also friendly toward people trying to get medical marijuana cards, which cost only $120 for the application fee, plus a doctor’s visit. While some states have very specific and restrictive lists of conditions that qualify for a card, such as AIDS and cancer, Oklahoma’s list is relatively expansive and includes less severe medical issues, including anxiety, insomnia and muscle spasms.

But now, a battle is brewing in Oklahoma between advocates who want to expand the industry and opponents who are trying to rein it in. In the legislative session starting next month, state lawmakers hope to play catch-up and introduce new restrictions on growers and processors amid renewed efforts by groups hoping to pass another ballot initiative, this time for full legalization.

Oklahoma’s growing medical marijuana market has been lucrative for the state, generating nearly $150 million in revenue in 2021, up from nearly $128 million in 2020, according to state data.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, which has almost doubled its staff in the past year, is still struggling to get inspectors to all of the licensees, said Adria Berry, the agency’s executive director. “We have not been able to keep up with the demand, but we are getting to the place where we’re able to get many more people out inspecting those places on a day-to-day basis.”

The Oklahoma law says medical card holders must be in-state residents, but Blevins and other growers said much of the demand for their product is coming from out of state, in places like Texas — where possession of marijuana largely remains illegal — and Kansas, another deeply conservative state that is in line to legalize medical marijuana. That high demand has driven down prices, Blevins said, to about a third of what they were when he started in 2018.

“Now they’re so much cheaper than the black market, and they can be bought and sold for profit,” he said.

A few thoughts…

1. The fact that the medical marijuana regime approved by Oklahoma’s voters is extremely appealing to both growers and users because of low costs and lax regulation, and also kind of a nightmare for the state government because of those lax regulations, is probably the most Oklahoma thing about this.

2. That $150 million in revenue generated for the state by the new marijuana industry may sound like a lot, but it would represent less than 0.1% of Texas’ annual revenue, which is to say a rounding error. Texas’ economy is a lot larger than Oklahoma’s, but even then that $150 million would represent about 1% of that state’s annual revenue. (Here’s a more recent number, which isn’t much different.) Adding legal pot to the economy may do a lot of beneficial things, but it’s not going to help fund the state government in any substantial way.

3. Along those lines, this is a reminder that Oklahoma also has casinos. Which also would not generate much revenue for the state of Texas if we had them, though legalizing them here would shift some funds that currently go out of state back to here. You can support or oppose casinos and marijuana as you see fit – I’m strongly for marijuana legalization, and at best ambivalent about casinos – the economic arguments just aren’t that compelling.

4. The article contains the standard bit of optimism about the future potential for expanding access to marijuana in Texas, citing public opinion polls and some recent mumblings by Greg Abbott that are sort of vaguely in favor of something. It therefore makes the classic error of completely ignoring (or being unaware of) Dan Patrick’s implacable opposition to loosening marijuana laws, which renders those two items useless. When Dan Patrick is no longer Lt. Governor, we can talk about how expanded access to marijuana might play out. Until then, it’s a dead letter.

That’s all I got. Link via the Current.

Austin aims for pot decriminalization

We’ll see how this goes. I suspect the measure will pass, but I’m not sure it will be allowed to take effect.

As greater numbers of Texas voters sour on harsh punishment for marijuana offenses, Austin voters will likely decide in May whether to effectively decriminalize the drug.

The ballot measure, pushed by the group Ground Game Texas, would forbid Austin police officers in most cases from ticketing or arresting people on low-level pot charges like possessing small amounts of the drug or related paraphernalia — unless the offenses are tied to more severe crimes. The city also would not pay to test substances suspected to be marijuana — a key step in substantiating drug charges.

Both practices have already been informally adopted in Austin, but advocates want to solidify them at the May ballot box.

“The primary effect is that it would make the decriminalization that exists in Austin today actually long term and would put the force of law behind it,” said Chris Harris, policy director at Austin Justice Coalition.

[…]

But the measure faces one big obstacle: Although marijuana laws in Texas have loosened somewhat in recent years, the drug remains illegal at the state level.

Public support for harsh marijuana laws and prosecutors’ willingness to bring charges for minor offenses has waned in recent years.

The number of new charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession fell by 59% from 2016 to 2020, according to figures from the Texas Office of Court Administration, as prosecutors in the state’s major urban areas have increasingly deprioritized marijuana prosecutions.

Most Texas voters support decriminalizing marijuana in some form. Three-fifths of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last year.

That support cuts across partisan lines. Nearly three-fourths of Democrats and independents think marijuana should be legal. So do 43% of Republicans, a plurality of that group.

It’s against that backdrop that Ground Game Texas — a progressive group focused on issues of “workers, wages and weed” — plans to mount decriminalization campaigns in Killeen and Harker Heights.

As the story notes, there’s an effort by Ground Game Texas to put a similar measure on the ballot in San Marcos. The City Council in Denton recently voted down an ordinance to do the same there, a move that perhaps validates this approach. The Austin police union, which has been resistant to the earlier efforts to decriminalize pot, is staying out of this election, but who knows what they might do afterward.

So what happens if this passes, as I expect it will? One obvious possibility is legal action to require the enforcement of the state laws. I’m sure there’s someone who’d be willing to be the plaintiff in such a filing, and no one has to encourage Ken Paxton to swing a bat in Austin’s direction. Legislative action is also possible – again, there’s nothing a Republican likes more these days than filing a bill to stop a city from doing something that legislator doesn’t approve of. A complicating factor in all this is that Greg Abbott is mumbling a few words in favor of being less harsh about pot, likely in recognition of the polling on this issue and Beto’s stronger pro-pot stance. I don’t know how much that complicates things for the keep-pot-criminal crowd, but it’s another dimension. I don’t know which way this will go, but it all starts with the measure being passed, and I feel pretty confident about that.

Beto for legalizing weed

I do think this is a winning campaign theme.

Beto O’Rourke

At a crowded rally in downtown Austin, Beto O’Rourke ticked off his usual laundry list of campaign promises: stabilizing the power grid, rolling back the state’s new permitless carry law and expanding health care access.

But the El Paso Democrat got some of the loudest cheers of the night when he promised to legalize marijuana in Texas, something he said “most of us, regardless of party, actually agree on.”

“I’ve been warned that this may or may not be a popular thing to say in Austin, Texas,” O’Rourke said to the crowd gathered in Republic Square Park in December. “But when I am governor, we are going to legalize marijuana.”

The support is nothing new for the gubernatorial candidate. O’Rourke has championed legalization efforts throughout his political career, ever since his time as a member of the El Paso city council. He also nodded at the policy throughout his failed campaigns for U.S. Senate and for president.

But in his early run for governor, O’Rourke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has repeatedly mentioned legalizing marijuana on the campaign trail across Texas. Advocates hope the increased attention will give momentum to legalization efforts in a state with some of the harshest penalties and highest arrest rates for marijuana possession.

[…]

If O’Rourke becomes governor, his plans to legalize marijuana would face another set of hurdles in the form of the Texas Legislature, particularly Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the state Senate.

After the House in April 2019 gave preliminary approval to a bill that would have reduced criminal penalties for Texans possessing small amounts of marijuana, Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.

There’s been some momentum for more progressive marijuana policies within Patrick’s party in recent sessions. In 2019, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed bills that would relax laws restricting medical cannabis access. Both of those reforms failed to become law. But Gov. Greg Abbott in May did sign a watered-down expansion of Texas’ medical marijuana program to include people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patrick did not comment for this story. In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, a Patrick spokesperson said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

Abbott didn’t answer questions on his position regarding marijuana legalization.

Legalization advocates hope O’Rourke’s candidacy can move opinions among state leaders on relaxing marijuana restrictions.

“Hopefully with Beto O’Rourke presumably being the Democratic nominee, we can push the other candidates in the race to talk about this issue more, to come to the table and have a conversation about how these policies are having negative impacts on our state,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

Marijuana legalization draws some broad support across the state. According to a June 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 60% of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal. That figure includes 73% of Democrats, 74% of independents and 43% of Republicans.

Mike Siegel, the co-founder of Ground Game Texas, a nonprofit focused on supporting progressive policies around “workers, wages, and weed,” said the issue is an opportunity for O’Rourke to reach independent or nonaligned voters.

“[Marijuana policy] is a major opportunity for [O’Rourke] to reach out to middle of the road, independent or nonaligned voters and even some Republican voters,” Siegel said. “A governor’s race that’s high-profile like the one that is coming up, where it could be Beto O’Rourke versus Greg Abbott, that’s the best opportunity to push these populist wedge issues.”

But Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said marijuana legalization isn’t a “terribly important issue” for voters on its own. Its political salience depends on the issues tied to the policy, he said, whether that is the economy, criminal justice system or health care.

As the story notes, this is a longstanding issue for Beto, going back to his days on El Paso City Council more than a decade ago as well as his time in Congress. I do think this is an issue that can move votes and motivate less reliable voters, though of course it has to be part of a bigger structure. I could see the overall message as being basically that Abbott is out of touch with what typical Texans want, with “not freezing to death because of massive power grid failures” being the first item on that list. Basically, how effective this will be as a campaign issue is largely what Beto can make of it. For now, I’m happy to see stories like this one.

Michelle Beckley files for Lt. Governor

And now there are three.

Michelle Beckley

Democratic state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, who gained national attention for joining lawmakers who fled to Washington, D.C., to block a Republican election bill this summer, is running for lieutenant governor, expanding her party’s primary to three contenders.

In her campaign announcement on Tuesday, Beckley said she was running because Republican incumbent Dan Patrick is implementing policies that “hurt Texas business and make life harder for all Texans.”

“I’m running for Lieutenant Governor because politicians are putting ideology ahead of results that matter to Texans,” she said. “In the last legislative session alone, they worked to limit voters’ rights, put bounties on women, marginalize minorities, and make-up false boogeymen in our schools, and the health and wealth of Texans suffered. I’m running to stop them.”

Beckley joins a race that already includes political commentator Matthew Dowd and Houston accountant and auditor Mike Collier, who was the Democratic nominee for the position in 2018 and came within 5 percentage points of beating Patrick. She said she was recruited to run for the position but did not say by who.

Beckley said she joined the race to give Democratic voters another option and a candidate with more legislative experience.

“Neither one of those candidates has won an election,” she said. “I won an election in a hard district and improved my margins.”

[…]

Beckley said Republicans will have a fundraising advantage over her, but she plans to raise enough money to get her message out and win over voters.

“I was outspent 10-to-1 my first election. Nobody thought I was gonna win that either,” she said. “I’ve done it before. So I’m confident I could do it again. I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that.”

Beckley said her top priorities as lieutenant governor would be expanding Medicaid, fixing shortcomings in the state’s power grid and fully funding public education. Those issues are in line with the priorities of the other candidates in the Democratic primary.

But Beckley, one of the most liberal members of the Texas House, is also known for her support for marijuana legalization, abortion rights and her call for more gun control after the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Beckley said she is a candidate who can bring “balance” to the position of lieutenant governor. Issues like marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion would benefit rural communities whose farmers could benefit from growing marijuana for business and whose struggling hospitals would be helped by a change in the health care system, she said.

But she does not back down from the positions she’s taken on immigration, abortion rights and guns, saying she’s portrayed as a liberal when she believes her actions are in step with the majority of Texas voters.

“Our state has gone to the extreme and I am the values of the moderate,” she said. “In many other states I would not be considered liberal at all.”

I don’t know about that last statement, but as we know there’s been consistent polling in recent years showing popular support for marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion, with at worst modest support Roe v Wade and not making abortion more illegal in Texas. Whether any of that can flip her some votes in East Texas is another question – and I say this as someone who advocates for the Medicaid and marijuana issues as a way to appeal to rural constituencies – but she will hardly be out on a limb campaigning for them.

As the story notes, Beckley had announced a candidacy for CD24 before the map was redrawn to make it a Trump +12 district. Her HD65 was also made to lean Republican, though it would not surprise me to see it flip in a cycle or two. If she can win the nomination, it’s likely that she has at least as good a shot at beating Dan Patrick as she would have had in either of those races.

She does have to win the primary first. As a two-term State Rep, her name ID will not be very high – I’d say Mike Collier is much better known, at least among Dem primary voters, thanks to his past candidacies – but being the only woman on the ballot (if no others join in) will help her. She had $25K on hand as of July, so fundraising is going to be a high priority for her – there’s only one way to get your name out there in a statewide race, and it doesn’t come cheap. I welcome her to the race and look forward to seeing what she has to say. The more people out there telling everyone what a lousy Lite Guv we now have, the better.

UT/Trib: More polls that say permitless carry is not popular

The UT/Texas Tribune polling machine did a whole bunch of issue polls following the end of the legislative session. That’s a long article that gives the highlights on each question – they covered a wide range of topics, some of which the respondents knew more about than others – and I will focus on three of them.

Texans had split reactions to the state’s actions on abortion policy, with 42% disagreeing with the state’s policies and 32% agreeing. Those sentiments fell largely along party lines, with 78% of Democrats disapproving and 56% of Republicans agreeing.

Voters were sharply divided over whether to ban most abortions after six weeks except in medical emergencies. Lawmakers passed a bill to implement that policy in Texas, creating one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation.

Forty-four percent of voters supported such a policy, while 46% opposed it. The policy fell predictably along party lines, but independents broke against it with 34% supporting the ban and 46% opposing it.

A majority of Texans opposed automatically banning all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark abortions case Roe v. Wade, an idea which lawmakers passed into law this session. Fifty-three percent of voters said they opposed the move, while 37% supported it. Again, independents broke against the policy, with 58% saying they strongly opposed the automatic ban and 20% saying they supported it.

“It’s a very small minority of voters who would ever ban abortion outright in all circumstances,” Blank said. “Generally speaking, Texans are open to some limited restrictions on abortion. You start to see pushback when you get to the point of restricting access outright.”

Voters disapproved of the Legislature’s handling of gun violence, with 43% saying they disapproved of legislative actions on the subject, while 32% said they approved.

Voters showed particular disapproval for allowing legal gun owners over the age of 21 to carry handguns in most places without a license or training, a policy conservatives call “constitutional carry.” Fifty-seven percent of voters said they disapproved of that policy, which lawmakers passed into law during the session. Thirty-six percent said they supported it.

That policy had 59% support among Republicans and a disapproval rate of 86% among Democrats.

Conversely, voters showed strong support for requiring criminal and mental health background checks for all gun purchases. Seventy-one percent of voters supported the policy, while only 21% opposed. Bills on that subject were not passed by the Legislature despite bipartisan support from 88% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans.

This is the seventh time the poll asked about background checks and it has received support from more than 70% of voters each time, Blank said.

Among Republicans there was majority support for both background checks and allowing legal gun owners over the age of 21 to carry handguns without a license or training.

“You can be a Republican who is happy with the way the Legislature addressed protecting Second Amendment rights but also think that maybe they could have done more to address gun violence, and those two things are not necessarily inconsistent,” Blank said.

Sixty-seven percent of Texans support Medicaid expansion, giving overwhelming support to an issue that’s been soundly rejected by Republican state leaders since the passage of the Affordable Care Act during Barack Obama’s presidency. Only 22% of voters opposed the policy.

Supporters included 50% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats.

“As long as it’s not directly tied to Barack Obama, generally people are more open to it than you think,” Blank said. “It just requires us to update our thinking about Republican orientations towards health care.”

Only 13% of voters think marijuana should not be legal under any circumstances. Twenty-seven percent believe it should be legal for medical purposes, 31% believe small amounts should be legal for any purpose and 29% believe any amounts should be legal for any purpose.

Support for some sort of marijuana legalization spans across party lines. Younger people between 18 and 29 are the most supportive of its legalization with only 4% saying it should not be legal under any circumstance. Fifty-one percent of those in that age group said any amount of marijuana should be legal for any reason.

Not sure why Medicaid expansion and marijuana reform were lumped together in that last section, but whatever. The point is that all of these results are consistent with other polls done in the past, though there is some range in the outcomes, as the much stronger opposition to permitless carry from that Quinnipiac poll shows. The campaign themes for 2022 couldn’t be clearer. The Republicans prioritized their own little hot-button issues over more important business like fixing the electric grid. Democrats support the things that voters actually want. The ads truly write themselves.

The poll also included questions about the voter suppression bill, and that got its own separate story.

Despite ceaseless Republican assertions that Texas’ voting rules must be tightened to prevent electoral fraud, only a small slice of the state’s registered voters believe ineligible voters often cast ballots in Texas elections, according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In a June UT/TT poll, just 19% of voters indicated they think ineligible people frequently cast ballots. A bulk of voters — 42% — believe ineligible votes are rarely or never cast. Even among Republicans, a minority of voters — 31% — believe ineligible votes are frequently cast.

[…]

During the regular legislative session that wrapped up in May, Republican lawmakers attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

“At some point, I think Republicans have run into the lack of evidence … and so they have gone to this ‘anything is a taint’,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin. With 25% of voters believing ineligible people sometimes vote in elections, he said Republican leaders have “something to work with” as they adjust their messaging.

“The Republican argument has had to make adjustments as they run into, frankly, evidentiary problems and dissonance caused by a lack of evidence for some of their response, so that may be part of the explanation here,” Henson said.

[…]

Heading into that special legislative session, 35% of registered voters say they would make voting rules more strict, while 29% would leave them as is and 26% would loosen them. Among Republicans, a large majority of voters (60%) want the rules to be more strict. A majority of Democrats (54%) want less strict rules. Almost the same share of both Republicans (30%) and Democrats (29%) would maintain the status quo.

Couple things here. One is that apparently there are some limits to lying your ass off. Who knew? Doesn’t mean that will be enough to stop the bullshit legislation said lies are built on, but at least it’s a rougher road. Two, the stricter/easier/same numbers on voter restrictions are pretty close to the numbers we have seen in previous polls about abortion. There may be a slight plurality for “stricter”, but a far larger number opposes that. Again, that is an issue you can run on.

Finally, while there is a partisan divide in all of these issues, there is also a difference in intensity in many of them. For some, Republicans are far more unanimous in their position while Dems are more diffuse, and for others it is the reverse. Whether there is an overall majority for one position, and if so which one, is usually determined by this difference in intensity. Sometimes, the level of intensity is about the same each way (and that may mean that neither side is all that worked up about it), and when that happens you have an even split, with at best a small plurality for one position. I find this to be the most useful way of thinking about this sort of poll. It’s still not clear how much any of these results translate into voter persuasion or enthusiasm, but it does at least give you some idea of where you are or are not out of step, and how much resistance you may get on a particular subject. As I said, on these issues (and some of the others that I didn’t comment on), the arrow is pointing clearly in the direction Dems should want to go.

Ground Game Texas

This is good, too.

Julie Oliver

Some of Democrats’ biggest regrets about the 2020 election in Texas had to do with organizing. It was not consistent throughout the cycle — and usually isn’t in any cycle. It was supplanted by TV ads at the end. And it was hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, with the backing of the state’s most prominent Democrats, two former congressional candidates are trying to turn those regrets into action.

The candidates, Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel, are launching a new nonprofit called Ground Game Texas that will focus on year-round organizing on progressive issues, aiming to fill what they see as a statewide void for their party. The group starts off with a $1 million investment from Register2Vote, a national nonprofit that the two already help lead.

“There’s no off years and there’s no off cycles, and folks need to stay engaged year-round,” Siegel said in an interview, adding there is “kind of a tendency among Democratic activists” to get involved only in presidential-election years or high-profile down-ballot contests like the 2018 U.S. Senate race. “The Republican Party doesn’t do that. They never stop.”

Ground Game Texas will organize Texans around issues rather than candidates, with a focus on what Siegel and Oliver are calling “workers, wages and weed” — issues like raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana that poll well but are not reflected by Republican policymakers in the state. A February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 60% of registered voters in Texas support legalizing some amount of marijuana for any use. A similar number in April expressed support for increasing the federal minimum wage.

The group expects to throw its weight behind local ballot initiatives, which often involve a lot of ground work such as collecting signatures for petitions to put the issues on a ballot. Siegel said he has already had conversations about proposals in 10 cities — places like Mission, Bedford and Elgin. The leading ideas there, he said, are decriminalizing marijuana and creating funding for climate jobs.

[…]

Ground Game Texas is launching with the support of three of the best-known Texas Democrats: Julián Castro, Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke, who said in a statement that the new group “is going to meet Texans where they are at to listen to them about the issues that matter most.” And it starts with an advisory board that includes Davis; rising-star state Reps. James Talarico of Round Rock and Jasmine Crockett of Dallas; and longtime party stalwarts such as former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy.

The advisory board additionally features Democrats who ran in nationally targeted districts last year and suffered some of the toughest losses, like Candace Valenzuela, who narrowly lost to now-U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving.

Both Oliver and Siegel have firsthand experience with the challenges Democrats faced last election cycle. They both performed surprisingly well when they ran against Republican incumbents in 2018 — Oliver against U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin and Siegel against Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin. In 2020, both ran again, only to lose by larger margins.

In 2020, both gained the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which named them to its Red to Blue program for promising challengers. But they remain skeptical of the committee’s priorities.

“[The DCCC] doesn’t really invest in this sort of infrastructure building that Mike and I did in our campaigns,” Oliver said. “That strategy is so different between the DC strategy and the Texas strategy. … The DC strategy doesn’t really work here in Texas, so we want to do year-round organizing.”

The DCCC announced Monday that it was including Texas in an initial seven-figure investment nationally in on-the-ground organizing, calling it the “earliest ever organizing investment of this scale and scope in DCCC’s history.” The committee said it would target areas in Texas such as Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, where Democrats notably underperformed last year.

As I’m sure you can guess, I approve of the issues they are focusing on. I very much think there’s ground to be gained by pushing real marijuana reform, and by “reform” I mean decriminalization, if not legalization. People across the board want it, and the single biggest impediment to it is Dan Patrick. I’m more skeptical of raising the minimum wage as a winning issue – note that the polling question is about whether one supports raising the federal minimum wage, not whether one supports raising the minimum wage in Texas – but am happy to push the idea. I trust that the focus on local ballot initiatives is a starting point, because that’s not going to get very far and any success they have is certain to wind up in court, if not in legislative pushback.

Putting emphasis on organizing when three’s not an actual election going on is a good and long-needed idea as well. Lots of people complain that no one talks to them about issues and what’s important to them outside of a “please vote for me” context, so this addresses that gap. We may find out that a lot of these people prefer being left alone most of the time, but there’s no way to know until you try. The bigger point here is that by having this kind of campaign infrastructure be year-round, you’re not having to rebuild from scratch every other year.

We’ve certainly seen various initiatives, promising various kinds of new engagement, come and go over the years. I’m sure that no matter what happens in 2022, in two years’ time I’ll be reading about yet another new effort to organize and engage and register. That’s fine, and it doesn’t mean that what came (and possibly went) before now was wasted or useless. We’ve had to try a lot of things, and to see what works and what doesn’t, we’ve learned from past experiences, and we have made a lot of progress even if the statewide breakthrough hasn’t happened yet. It would be much more concerning to me if we weren’t seeing new efforts like this, spearheaded in part by new additions to the political team, popping up and making news. We all have options for how we want to get involved now. Find the one that works best for you and get into it.

Small revisions to medical marijuana law passed

You know what I’m going to say about this, right?

A watered-down expansion of Texas’ medical marijuana program is headed to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott after the state House voted to accept significant changes to the bill made in the Senate.

House Bill 1535 expands eligibility for the Texas Compassionate Use Program to people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Senate stripped out a provision that would’ve allowed any Texan with chronic pain to access medical marijuana.

The bill also caps the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high, at 1%. That’s only a nominal increase from the 0.5% allowed under current law. The bill as passed by the House capped the amount of THC at 5%, still far lower than most states that have authorized the plant for medicinal use.

The measure falls short of what many advocates had hoped for. Its sponsor, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said on the House floor that her counterparts in the Senate were unwilling to budge. She begrudgingly asked the House to concur with the overhaul, rather than reject amendments tacked on in the upper chamber and send the bill to a conference committee.

[…]

Fewer than 6,000 Texans have enrolled in the Compassionate Use Program. About 2 million people are eligible under current law.

Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, lamented that the proposal in its final form was “unreasonably restrictive,” despite wide bipartisan support for legalizing cannabis. A February poll from the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 60% of Texans said small or large amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.

“While we are glad to see the Compassionate Use Program being expanded, it’s disappointing to see Texas inching forward while other states, like Alamaba for example, are moving forward with real medical cannabis programs,” Fazio said. “It’s doing so little and we wish [lawmakers] were doing more.”

See here for the previous entry and a clear explanation of my position, if for some reason that was a mystery to you. The problem is super simple to state: Dan Patrick will not allow any significant loosening of the state’s restrictive marijuana laws, even for medical marijuana, as long as he is Lt. Governor. The solution is obvious. Making that happen is harder, but that’s really all there is to it. The Chron has more.

News flash: Dan Patrick does not support loosening marijuana laws

In other news, summer is hot and it sometimes floods in Houston.

With less than two weeks left in Texas’ legislative session, medical marijuana advocates are ratcheting up pressure on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who they say is blocking an effort to expand the state’s Compassionate Use Program.

House Bill 1535, by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, would expand the state’s medical cannabis program to include those with chronic pain, all cancer patients and Texans with post-traumatic stress disorder. It would also authorize the Department of State Health Services to add additional qualifying conditions through administrative rulemaking. Current law requires the Legislature to pass a bill to expand eligibility.

The Texas House voted 134-12 last month to send the proposal to the state Senate, where it has languished in a legislative purgatory. The upper chamber received the bill May 3, but it has not yet been referred to a committee, let alone voted on and sent to the floor. Wednesday is the last day the Senate can take up bills.

Patrick, who leads the Senate, has the final say on which bills are considered and to which committees they’ll be referred. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s difficult to come up with any explanation that makes sense as to why the lieutenant governor would block this legislation,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. She added that the legislation is a “carefully crafted and moderate expansion” with wide bipartisan backing. Fazio said state Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who are both doctors, have voiced support for HB 1535.

[…]

Earlier this week, a Texas Senate committee advanced a proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. House Bill 2593 would reduce the penalty for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana to a class C misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time. That measure is poised for a vote on the Senate floor.

This is not the first time Patrick has exercised his power to effectively kill cannabis-related proposals. In 2019, he likewise refused to give a hearing to a medical marijuana expansion measure. A Patrick spokesperson told The Texas Tribune at the time that the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

With all due respect to Heather Fazio, Dan Patrick has always been clear about why he blocks bills like these: He thinks marijuana is bad and he thinks that efforts to decriminalize it are dangerous. The mystery to me is why we get so many optimistic stories about reducing penalties and promoting cannabis without any reckoning of this fact. He has a long track record of this behavior, and he has never said anything to indicate that his position is softening. I understand why anyone would not want to take Dan Patrick at his word, but this is one of those places where you should, because his actions speak very clearly and consistently. I will say this again: The only path to real reform of our state’s marijuana laws requires getting rid of Dan Patrick. As long as he holds power, pro-pot bills (with a few very limited exceptions) will wither and die in the Legislature. I really don’t know why this is so hard to understand.

UPDATE: The Trib story now reflects the fact that HB1535 was finally referred to a committee on Thursday, giving it a chance to pass out of the Senate. Time is short, and as noted it took more than two weeks for the bill to even be assigned to a committee. More progressive marijuana reform bills, ones that would reduce criminal penalties, never stood a chance. In other words, Dan Patrick may have given a bit under pressure, but the basic point remains. Marijuana reform doesn’t go any farther than he will allow, and he won’t allow much.

Once again, bills to allow more gambling in Texas are dead

Same as it ever was.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

A high-profile push by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to bring casinos to Texas appears doomed at the state Capitol as this year’s legislative session begins to wind down.

Monday was the deadline for House committees to advance that chamber’s bills and joint resolutions, and the deadline passed without the State Affairs Committee voting out the Las Vegas Sands-backed House Joint Resolution 133. The legislation, which got a hearing last month, would let Texas voters decide whether to build “destination resorts” with casinos in the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas.

Identical legislation in the Senate has not even received a committee hearing, though its chances there were always slimmer given the resistance of the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“We have said from the beginning that we’re committed to Texas for the long haul,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands’ senior vice president of government relations, said in a statement given to The Texas Tribune on Monday evening. “We have made great strides this session and have enjoyed meeting with lawmakers about our vision for destination resorts and answering all the questions they have.”

Abboud added that the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive,” promising the company “will continue to build on this progress over the final days of the legislation session, and over the coming months, we will continue to build community support across the state to ultimately turn this vision into a reality.”

See here and here for the background. Similar bills to allow betting on sports, which is now a thing that can happen, are also dead. (Yes, yes, I know, nothing is All Dead in the Legislature until sine die, but trust me – there’s no Miracle Max chocolate-coated pill for these bills.)

I’ve been following legislative sessions for almost 20 years now, and I’m pretty sure that in every one, we’ve had an organized and often highly publicized push for some form of gambling legalization. Horse racing, slot machines, poker, casinos, and now sports betting, every session without fail. Sometimes economic misfortune has been cited as a reason why This Time It’s Different, sometimes some other economic reason is given. Lamentations about people going to Louisiana or Oklahoma to get their gamble on are always a part of the ritual, as is the dredging up of a poll showing popular support for whatever form of gambling is being touted. We used to have a Republican Speaker whose family money came from horse racing. This time, we had an investment from Sheldon Adelson, gambling mogul and Republican super-duper-donor. Each was supposed to be a way to crack open the door. And without fail, every session it all ends with an unceremonious thud.

I am as you know ambivalent about expanded gambling. I don’t have any philosophical opposition to it, but I also don’t believe it to be all that good for the state, as it comes with a truckload of externalities. I do think that much like expanded access to marijuana, it’s coming to Texas sooner or later, if only because enough people want them. In both cases, the simple reason why these measures (the pro-pot ones are also highly touted and written about in breathless fashion) don’t get anywhere is that Dan Patrick opposes them. For reasons unclear to me, that usually merits little more than a one-paragraph acknowledgement towards the end of the stories. Dan Patrick won’t be in charge forever – if we’re lucky, this will be his last regular session to lord over – and that’s one reason why I expect things to eventually change. Until then, the smart money will always be to completely disregard the puff pieces about the hot new gambling advocacy alliance and bet on nothing happening. If there’d been a line on that and I’d been smart enough to play it I could put both my kids through college on that by now.

The Texas cannabis industry sure is optimistic

I remain more skeptical, at least of their short-term capacity.

“I suspect if you grabbed a random person on the street and asked them if cannabis was legal in Texas, they would probably look at you like you’re crazy and say ‘no,’” said Marcus Ruark, president of goodblend Texas, which is preparing [a site in San Marcos] for its 63,000-square-foot marijuana growing facility.

The notion that it’s “crazy” is because cannabis is still illegal in Texas, which is home to some of the strictest anti-marijuana laws in the nation. But a gradual expansion of the state’s limited medical marijuana program in recent years could soon give way to an industry that’s accessible to a broader swath of Texans.

While still relatively low, the number of Texans utilizing the state’s medicinal marijuana Compassionate Use Program has grown by 180 percent over the past year. Some estimate there are about 2 million Texas patients eligible to use cannabis, but many just don’t know about the program.

“So we’ve started making an investment in that and getting the word out and increasing awareness, and I think that’s definitely helping,” Ruark said.

For now, goodblend Texas is one of only three companies licensed to cultivate and sell marijuana in the state. The others are Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation and Fluent, which is a subsidiary of Cansortium, a publicly traded marijuana holdings company.

Statewide, just over 300 physicians are licensed to prescribe medical marijuana. And as of March, there were only 4,919 patients registered with the Compassionate Use Program, according to the Department of Public Safety. A year earlier, just 1,757 people were registered to use medical marijuana in Texas.

The number of medical marijuana patients in the state is “growing about 10 percent month over month every month, so it’s actually pretty robust growth for the patients who are accessing the program,” Ruark said.

While steadily increasing, the number of Texas patients pales in comparison to what’s seen in nearby states such as Oklahoma, where roughly 8 percent of the state’s population — over 300,000 people — are medical marijuana patients, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. In Louisiana, which has a population less than one-fifth of that of Texas, there were 4,350 medical marijuana users at the end of 2019.

Still, the growth in numbers of Texas patients utilizing medical marijuana is prompting the $25 million investment by Parallel, the parent company of goodblend Texas, to build in San Marcos.

That’s a good growth rate, but one of the reasons why the growth rate is so high is because it’s starting from such a small base. If the number of patients registered with the Compassionate Use Program were to grow at an annual rate of 200% from the point given above, it would take almost three years to get to 100,000 patients. It will take more than that $25 million invested in a pot farm in San Marcos to make that happen, and they’re going to need bigger numbers than that to really make some money.

Even with the medical marijuana patient count already growing, a bill passed last month by the Texas House would massively expand the pool of patients eligible to use cannabis.

House Bill 1535 would allow patients suffering from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer or other conditions approved by the state health department to be treated with medical cannabis. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.

To become law, it still must clear the Senate and be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

It would be a small step toward changing Texas’ status as one of the most restrictive among the 47 states that allow medical marijuana programs. When the Compassionate Use Program was created by the Legislature in 2015, it initially allowed only patients with intractable epilepsy to be treated with marijuana.

In 2019, another bill allowed those with particular diseases, such as autism and incurable neurodegenerative disorders, or people with terminal cancer, to be eligible.

HB1535 was passed out of the House on April 29, and received by the Senate on May 3. I have no idea what fate awaits it in the Senate, but as we have discussed before, the Senate in general is more hostile to any loosening of existing marijuana laws, including medical marijuana, and Dan Patrick has given no signal that he intends to allow a bill like HB1535 to come to the floor, let alone pass. Yet every cycle we get this kind of blue-sky, if-only reporting, in the same way we get breathless stories about casino interests spending money to pursue the same doomed expansion they’ve been seeking for at least the last 20 years, and I just don’t get it. I say this as someone who would like to see full-on decriminalization – indeed, I want to make that a campaign issue – but also as someone who needs evidence to buy into the idea that Things Really Are Different This Time. Wishing and hoping and a pot farm in San Marcos will only get you so far.

HempLicenseGate

The headline on this Trib story is “Top political aide to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller arrested in alleged scheme to take money in exchange for hemp licenses”, and I have no idea how to make it any pithier than that.

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller’s Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

“Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith,” the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

[…]

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was “introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019.”

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was “working directly with senior leadership at the TDA” and that he “needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the ‘guaranteed’ hemp license.”

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who “denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from” the middle man, according to the allegations.

You can see the affidavit here. As the story notes, these hemp licenses were created in the 2019 Legislature for the purpose of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which had been illegal under prior marijuana laws. HB 1325 from last session modified the legal definition of marijuana as part of the solution for that, and in the process made it harder for prosecutors to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases. None of that has anything to do with this case, which appears to be your basic “greedy dude with access to power attempts to cash in” story, at least on the surface. Good luck to the famously articulate Sid Miller explaining that to the voters.

Houston police reform items announced

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday unveiled a sweeping effort to reform policing in Houston by banning no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses, restructuring the police oversight board, publicly releasing body camera footage when officers injure or kill residents, expanding diversion programs and allowing online and anonymous complaints against officers.

The reform package, which Turner outlined at a City Hall press conference with Police Chief Troy Finner and other city officials, comes nearly 11 months after the mayor appointed a task force to explore changes the city should make after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The group published a lengthy report last September that recommended 104 reforms to policing in Houston. Turner at the time said he supported “almost all” of the measures.

The city made more modest changes before and after it unveiled the report, such as an executive order curbing certain uses of force, “safe harbor” court to provide alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay fines, and joining a cite-and-release program that gives citations instead of arrests for certain nonviolent crimes.

The slow pace in addressing big-ticket items, though, frustrated advocates looking for more immediate reforms. Turner sought to change that Thursday, addressing many of the central recommendations in the task force’s report. He said the city now has implemented more than half its suggestions.

Among the changes: a dashboard to track police misconduct and encounters while also accepting anonymous complaints; a revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff; the ban on no-knock warrants, one of which resulted in two civilian deaths and unearthed a major scandal for Houston police; and the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents.

The online complaint form, available in five languages, and data dashboards will be available by the end of May, Turner said. It will allow for anonymous complaints, which advocates have said is critical.

Scott Henson, executive director of justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said a similar change had a profound impact in Austin, where officers began anonymously reporting each other for infractions.

[…]

Turner also said he will use more than $25 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over three years to expand diversion programs, a key victory for some advocates who had called for the city to add mental health counselors to police responding to certain calls, or replace them altogether.

The diversion programs include Crisis Call Diversion, which directs certain 911 calls to mental health professionals with the goal of resolving an incident without a police response; Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which dispatch mental health professionals without law enforcement; and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair a mental health counselor with a police officer.

The mayor said the city will expand the call diversion program to around-the-clock coverage, at an annual cost of $272,140, and hire 18 new mobile crisis outreach teams at a cost of $4.3 million per year, as the task force recommended.

While the report called for 24 new crisis intervention teams, the city will hire six new teams to add to the current staff of 12, among other efforts.

“We do ask our police officers to do way too much, and put them in some very precarious situations where the outcomes sometimes are not positive,” Turner said.

See here for the previous update. Overall, this seems pretty good, and the announcement drew praise from CMs Letitia Plummer and Tarsha Jackson, who are among the leaders in pushing for reforms on City Council. Some advocates were more muted, but at least no one was quoted in the story with harsh criticism. It’s still early days, so we’ll see about that. The next step is in the implementation, which will be another measure of the commitment from the city, as well as an indication of if we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace. It’s a good start, now we need to take the next steps. The Press has more.

On the topic of criminal justice reform, there were also a couple of items of interest from the Lege. First, the George Floyd Act passed the House.

The Texas House on Thursday quickly gave preliminary approval to three police reform measures that are part of a sweeping set of legislation following the in-custody murder of George Floyd last year.

The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, lead author of the bills and the omnibus George Floyd Act, said the disciplinary measure was about fairness and accountability.

“The bill is by no means a cookie cutter process,” said Thompson, D-Houston. “Every case of officers’ misconduct is different. But so are other crimes in this state.”

The approved measures will head to the more conservative Senate after a final vote in the House. The upper chamber has also passed targeted pieces of Texas’ George Floyd Act — though only those that are also supported by police unions. The measure on officer discipline is strongly opposed by major police unions.

See here for some background. I am cautiously optimistic, but with the Senate working to pass permitless carry over the objections of law enforcement, I fear they’ll aim to appease them by watering down this bill. We’ll see.

Also from the Lege: Smaller penalties for pot possession passes the House.

The Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would lower the criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana and provide a path for many Texans charged with such a crime to expunge it from their criminal records. The bill applies to possession of one ounce or less — approximately two dime bags.

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which can be punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 441, authored by state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would reduce possession of one ounce or less to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to make arrests for possession at or under an ounce.

In a committee hearing, Zwiener said the language had been worked on with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and praised the “bipartisan conversation” over reducing possession penalties. The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opposed it and quickly declared it dead in the upper chamber. Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I continue to believe that no measure of marijuana decriminalization will pass the Lege as long as Dan Patrick is in a position of power. I will be happy to be proven wrong about that.

UH Hobby School poll: Popular things are popular

That’t the main takeaway here.

More than two-thirds of Texans support raising some new taxes and using the state’s rainy day fund to patch budget shortfalls from the pandemic, according to a new survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

The survey, conducted online earlier this month, comes as lawmakers are back in Austin to consider a raft of new bills, many of them centered on the health crisis and other recent events, including protests over police brutality and the November election.

In addition to overwhelming support for new taxes on e-cigarettes and vaping products, respondents also heavily favor closing loopholes that allow large companies to lower their property taxes, raising the franchise tax on large businesses and legalizing casino gambling and marijuana, which would generate new tax revenue.

Just over 80 percent of respondents oppose a universal state income tax, but a majority, 62 percent, support taxing income on those earning more than $1 million a year.

[…]

In election reforms, two thirds of Texans support online voter registration and universal mail-in voting, according to the poll. The state currently does not have widespread online voter registration and limits mail-in voting to those over 65 or living with a disability. Texas is considered to have the most restrictive voting process in the country.

Another big issue this year will be redistricting, in which lawmakers redraw the state’s political boundaries for the next ten years. The process is currently controlled by Republicans, who hold majorities in both state legislative chambers. According to the poll, however, 70 percent of respondents support turning the process over to an independent commission, as is done in some other states including California.

Separately, 72 percent of respondents support criminal justice reforms spurred by the killing last summer of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The George Floyd Act, as it’s known, includes changes such as prohibiting chokeholds and limiting police immunity from civil lawsuits. While it is widely supported, fewer than half of Republican respondents favor the legislation.

And with the state’s uninsured rate ballooning further, 69 percent of respondents support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

There are multiple polls being conducted under this umbrella, and you can find executive summaries and links to poll data here. The legislative issues poll data is here, and the media release is here, while the state budget poll data is here and the media release is here.

There are a couple of caveats to apply to this set of results. One is that this is a poll of adults, not registered voters. I’ve talked many times about the schism between what polls say are popular policies and what people actually vote for, and that is a key distinction to keep in mind. Two, likely related to item one, is that the composition of this sample is 31% Democrat, 27% Republican, 30% Independent, 8% Unsure, and 4% Other. I think we can make some guesses about where the non-voters are. Three, there are some serious partisan splits on questions like no-excuses mail voting, online voter registration, and the independent redistricting commission, with Dems vastly more in support than Republicans. Finally, some of these questions have a high “Don’t know” response to them (33% for the redistricting commission, for example), but the topline numbers being reported in the story are the recalculated percentages after the “don’t know” respondents are removed. These are some pretty big qualifiers, and you should very much keep them in mind.

That doesn’t mean this kind of poll has no value, just that it needs to be kept in perspective. As Grits notes, the poll wording on some complex issues like criminal justice reform is quite precise, so at least the people who did respond had a clear idea of what they were supporting or opposing, unlike the vaguely-worded Texas 2036 poll. And of course popular ideas can be a way to bring out less-likely voters, if one can get one’s message out in adequate fashion. Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization both scored pretty well, with a lesser partisan split than the election-related questions. That’s good news for my suggested 2022 platform, but also a reminder that the other side gets to express an opinion and to influence the outcome. Being popular only goes so far.

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

Don’t get your hopes too high. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Five years after Texas legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses, advocates and industry experts say the state’s strict rules, red tape and burdensome barriers to entry have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help.

But with a new legislative session gaveling in next month, some Texas lawmakers see an opportunity to fix the state’s medical cannabis program — known as the Compassionate Use Program — by further expanding eligibility and loosening some restrictions so Texas’ laws more closely resemble those of other states that allow the treatment.

There are 3,519 Texans registered with the state to use medical marijuana, though advocates say 2 million people are eligible based on current law.

Texas’ program pales in overall participation and scope compared with other states: It has fewer enrolled patients and businesses than most other states with medical marijuana programs. At least some form of medical marijuana is legal in 47 states nationwide, but Texas’ restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re pretty dang close to the bottom. We’re pretty far behind,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to how access to Texas’ medical marijuana program fares compared with other states. Menéndez will push legislation in the next session to further expand the program.

[…]

As of Dec. 14, at least seven bills had been filed by lawmakers seeking to expand the Compassionate Use Program. Menéndez is authoring a far-reaching bill that would make more patients eligible, strike the THC cap and lower business fees, among other changes.

“I think we’d see a lot more participation if we had a real medical cannabis program,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

In the past, medical cannabis bills have faced opposition from lawmakers who see it as a path to legalizing recreational marijuana, Menéndez said. But he says expanding the program will put decisions about who can access the medicine into the hands of doctors.

When the Senate voted to include more patients in 2019, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he was concerned the legislation was more of a “cliff” than a slippery slope.

“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to recreational use,” Birdwell said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going any further than this because of what I’m seeing in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and what’s happening in those states. I am highly guarded.”

There are a lot more words in there about what Texas does and doesn’t do, and who is affected, and how much better things would be if we had more legal pot, not to mention the economic boost, and you should read them. And then you should remember that nothing is going to pass as long as Dan Patrick – who is for some reason not mentioned in the story – remains opposed to any further loosening of marijuana laws. I support a wholesale loosening of these laws, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that such a loosening would have popular support. Which is why I’d like to see the Democratic slate in 2022 go all in on this. It’s a winning issue, and we’re going to need winning issues if we hope to push Dan Patrick out of there. In the meantime, by all means call your Rep or your Senator and tell them what you support. Maybe your preferred bill will pass the House, or get a Senate committee hearing. That’s likely the best you’ll get for now, but at least it’s something.

One possible path for police reform in the Lege

Keep an eye on this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees licensing of the state’s 102,000 police officers and jailers, could be in for a major overhaul, state officials hinted Monday morning.

“This is the time to get it done,” John Cyrier (R-Lockhart), chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, said at a combination in-person and virtual hearing Monday. The commission, charged with evaluating state agencies every decade or so, last month issued a blistering report on the law enforcement oversight commission, finding it lacked meaningful ability to oversee the state’s law enforcement agencies and discipline bad cops.

It also concluded the state’s educational requirements for police were outdated and insufficient. To qualify for a peace officer license, Texas cops need fewer hours of basic training than licensed cosmetologists and less than half the education required of air-conditioning and refrigeration contractors.

Testifying to the Sunset commission — composed of five representatives, five senators, and two public members — Kim Vickers, the law enforcement commission’s executive director, agreed, saying the state’s approach to regulating law enforcement has been ineffective. “I’ll be frank,” he said. “That’s true. We’ve been saying that.”

The heart of the Sunset commission’s critique was that although the law enforcement commission is supposed to be responsible for licensing police, it has little authority to discipline bad cops. Instead, each of the state’s 2,800 local law enforcement agencies is responsible for enforcing its own standards, which can vary across departments, resulting in “inconsistently set and enforced local standards.”

Unlike in the agencies that regulate other professions such as teachers and doctors, state law gives the law enforcement commission authority to revoke a police officer’s license in only limited circumstances: if the officer falls behind on mandated continuing education, if he or she receives two dishonorable discharges, or when an officer is convicted of felony or serious misdemeanor crimes.

As a result, the Sunset commission concluded, Texas’s regulation of police was “toothless.”

For example, its examination of the licensing agency found that of 600 officers who had received “dishonorable” discharges, more than a quarter had been rehired.

There are of course a lot more things we can and should do at the state level to reform criminal justice as a whole, with marijuana decriminalization as the biggest ticket item. (Yes, full legalization would be better, but some small incremental decriminalization is the best we can hope for, given the realities of having Dan Patrick as Lt. Governor.) Banning no-knock warrants is another. I support the vast majority of them, though I know any step forward is going to be hard won. I would hope that improving the minimum standards for law enforcement training, and making it easier to permanently remove bad cops from the pool would be something that will have broad enough support to get enacted. Grits for Breakfast, writing about that original sunset report from last month, has more.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

State budget situation not quite as awful as feared

Still bad, but could be worse.

Despite “historic declines,” state lawmakers will have more money to work with in the upcoming legislative session than Comptroller Glenn Hegar expected over the summer, he said Monday. But Hegar did not outline specifics as state coffers continue to suffer from the economic recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales tax revenues, by far the largest part of the state budget, fell by 4.8% in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year compared with the same stretch last year, Hegar said. It was a much softer hit than he anticipated, thanks to Texans staying home and spending money on “staycations instead of vacations.”

Other revenue streams, such as taxes related to alcohol, hotel occupancy, and oil and gas, were down more than 40% in the same period this year compared with last, Hegar told lawmakers Monday during a Legislative Budget Board meeting at the Capitol.

“Revenues remain down significantly relative to a year ago, and well below what we expected to collect when the Legislature wrapped up work on the budget in 2019,” Hegar said.

Legislative budget writers decide how much money will be allocated for large state expenses like how much school districts get, how well health care programs are funded, which transportation projects get built and what amount state law enforcement gets based on how much the comptroller says will be available during the next two-year budget cycle, which runs from September 2021 through August 2023. Hegar will likely unveil that number as the session nears.

Hegar, whose office is in charge of collecting taxes owed to the state of Texas, last formally updated lawmakers in July, when he wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers projecting the state’s current two-year budget to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That would put the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar wrote in July.

A few points:

– Let’s hope Hegar is a better revenue estimator than Susan Combs was. Her epic misfire in 2011 led to far more cuts being made than were needed.

– There are and will be plenty of stories written about how this is now the time that the Lege will consider marijuana legalization or casino gambling, because those things generate revenue that could be used to help stave off the deficit. The bit about gambling has been trotted out reliably every cycle since at least 2003, and it has never been true, in large part because the people who oppose expanded gambling still oppose it in deficit situations, and they remain with sufficient power to block it. I expect the same to be true for pot – it will happen when and if there is sufficient political support for it, and the budget situation will not be a factor.

– Also, too, people like Greg Abbott and especially Dan Patrick don’t want new revenue sources. They are perfectly happy to cut things out of the budget. Deficit situations are great opportunities for them.

– We could avoid all this if there is a federal COVID relief package targeted at cities and states. That’s only going to have a chance of happening if Dems win the two Georgia Senate runoffs, and even then it may be dicey. But it is a thing that Abbott et al could advocate for if they chose.

– Oh, yeah, the Rainy Day Fund. We didn’t use it in 2011 because Rick Perry decided that the fund, which was explicitly set up for the purpose of blunting the effect of economic downturns – hence the actual name “Economic Stabilization Fund” – was actually for natural disasters instead. I feel pretty confident that Greg Abbott will declare that COVID is no reason to tap the fund, and in the absence of a legislative majority to dip into it, it ain’t happening. (It’s possible some small amount may be used, if budget writers feel sufficiently desperate, and the nihilist caucus can be tamed or bought off. Don’t bet on it, that’s my advice.)

We’ll know more in January. Hope for the best. The Chron has more.

There’s a raft of pro-pot bills that have been filed so far

And one formidable obstacle to them all, in the form of Lt. Gov. Dan “One Million Dollars!” Patrick.

Texas lawmakers set a record with over 60 marijuana-related bills in 2019 — and this year, they’ve already introduced 11 measures that could potentially loosen the legal restrictions on the drug, with two months to go before legislative session begins in January.

“The shift in public opinion has led to lawmakers taking more action on this issue,” said Heather Fazio, the director of the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, pointing to 2019’s legalization of hemp products containing less than 0.3 percent THC. “What we’re seeing is this huge movement where lawmakers are responding to their constituents who no longer support the status quo.”

Still, Texas is among the states with the most restrictive marijuana laws in the nation. The state counted the most total arrests for marijuana possession in the country in 2018, according to a April ACLU report on racial disparity and drug possession, making up 44 percent of all drug-related arrests statewide.

And the Texas Highway Patrol made 250 arrests for small amounts of weed between July 2019 and the end of the year, after the state’s hemp law took effect.

At the top of advocates’ list is House Bill 447, filed by state Rep. Joseph Moody, a Democrat from El Paso. If passed, it could be the most far-reaching cannabis legalization bill to come out of the House so far, allowing Texans over 21 years old to consume, transport and grow marijuana with some limitations.

The bill also opens the door for marijuana businesses, offering guidelines on proper licensure and distribution of cannabis. A portion of tax revenue from sales would contribute to public school teachers’ salaries and retirement.

In 2019, Moody unsuccessfully tried to pass a decriminalization bill. It failed in the Senate, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick saying the measure would have been a step toward legalization, which he would not support.

Opponents have said any steps to lessen the legal penalties for possessing, using or distributing marijuana could lead to increased crime or push users into more dangerous and more addictive drugs.

But with a pandemic-induced budget slump to handle, Moody said lawmakers from both parties are beginning to look to the marijuana industry as a potential gold mine for sales tax revenue.

There’s a quote a little farther in the article from Sen.-elect Roland Gutierrez, who has filed a companion bill in the Senate, that touts the revenue that these bills could generate. I think that would be a great pitch in a campaign to get a statewide referendum passed, but that’s not an option in Texas. It’s also the case that people like Dan Patrick don’t care about the revenue potential, because they’re not interested in generating revenue. They don’t want to pay for things (well, most things), they want to cut them. Patrick opposes legalization of pot, and anything that looks like a step towards legalization of pot. I admire and support what Rep. Moody and Sen.-elect Gutierrez are doing, but those bills will never get past Dan Patrick.

There is, as noted, bipartisan support for easing up on marijuana. Even a wingnut like Rep. Steve Toth has a bill to make marijuana possession a Class C misdemeanor, which would greatly reduce punishment for it. Dan Patrick opposed a similar bill in 2019. If we want to make progress on this, the first step has to be to get rid of Dan Patrick. The Trib has more.

Looking ahead to 2022

Continuing with the brain dumps, which are my post-election tradition. This is a collection of thoughts about the next big election, in 2022.

As I said earlier, I take no position on the question of what effect the disparity in door-to-door campaigning had. I can buy there was some effect, but we have no way of how much of an effect it was. The good news is, whatever the case, this isn’t a trend, it’s a one-time effect of an election in a pandemic. I feel pretty confident saying that barring anything extraordinary, traditional door-knocking will be a big component of everyone’s 2022 campaigns. Perhaps Democrats will have learned something useful from this year’s experience that will enhance what they can do in 2022; admittedly, what they have learned may be “this sucks and we never want to do it this way again”.

There are a couple of things that concern me as we start our journey towards 2022. The first is that after four long years of hard work, with one rewarding election cycle and one disappointing cycle, people will be less engaged, which needless to say will make keeping the ground we have gained, let alone gaining more ground, that much harder. I think people will be focused on bringing change to our state government, but we can’t take this for granted. People are tired! These were four years from hell, and we all feel a great weight has been lifted. I get it, believe me. But we felt this way following the 2008 election, and we know what came next. We cannot, absolutely cannot, allow that to happen again. We know what we need to do.

Second, and very much in line with the above, the national environment matters. What President Biden will be able to accomplish in the next two years depends to a significant extent on the outcome of those two Georgia Senate runoffs, but however they go we need to remember that there are significant obstacles in his way. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were greatly rewarded for their all-out obstructionism throughout the Obama presidency. We can’t control what McConnell et al do, but we can control our reaction to it. Do we get discouraged and frustrated with the lack of progress, or do we get angry with the people whose fault it really is? How we react will be a big factor in determining what the national mood in 2022 is.

I’m already seeing people give their fantasy candidate for Governor. They include the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro (my choice), Cecile Richards, Lina Hidalgo, and others. I don’t know who might actually want to run – it is still early, after all – but we just need to bear in mind that every candidate has their pros and cons, and we need to worry less about matters of personality and more about building coalition and continuing the work we’ve been doing.

For what it’s worth, four themes I’d like to see our eventual candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor emphasize: Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization, emergency/disaster preparedness and response, and improving the voter experience, with a focus on online voter registration. The first two have proven they are popular enough to be adopted by voter initiative in deep red states, the third is obvious and should include things like hurricanes, flooding, and drought in addition to pandemics in general and COVID-19 in particular, and the fourth is something there’s already bipartisan support for in the Lege. Let Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick defend the status quo here.

(Increasing the minimum wage was also a ballot initiative winner in states like Florida, and it generally polls well. I very much support raising the minimum wage, but don’t have as much confidence that it would be an electoral winner here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise.)

Here are some numbers to contemplate as we look towards 2022:

I’d attribute the regression in performance in the biggest 15 counties to Republican improvement more than Democrats falling short – as noted multiple times, Democrats hit new highs in the big urban counties, but so did the GOP. There’s still room for growth here, especially in an environment where turnout level is much more volatile, but the marginal growth is smaller now. Putting that another way, there’s no longer a deficit of voter registration in these counties. We need to maintain and keep up with new population growth, but we’re not behind where we should be any more. If we do that, and we prioritize maximizing our own base, we’ll be fine.

It’s the bottom two groups that we need to pay some attention to. A lot of these counties have medium-sized cities in them, and that’s an obvious place to focus some effort. (I’ve been beating that drum for months and months now.) But we really need to do something about the small rural counties, too, or face the reality of huge vote deficits that we can’t control and have to overcome. I know this is daunting, and I have no illusions about how much potential for gain there is here, but I look at it this way: If Donald Trump can convince some number of Black and Latino people to vote for him in 2020, after four years of unrelenting racism and destruction, then surely nothing is impossible. I think marijuana legalization could be a good wedge issue here. Remember, the goal is to peel off some support. A few points in our direction means many thousands of votes.

It’s too early to worry about legislative and Congressional races, because we have no idea what redistricting will wrought. I think we should be prepared for litigation to be of limited value, as it was this decade, and for the Republicans to do as much as they can to limit the number of competitive districts. They may be right about it in 2022, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be right in subsequent years.

In Harris County, we should expect competitive primaries for all of the countywide positions, and for many of the judicial spots. Judge Lina Hidalgo has done an outstanding job, but we know there are people who could have run in 2018 who are surely now thinking “that could have been me”. Don’t take anything for granted. We need to keep a close eye on the felony bail reform lawsuit, and news stories about how the current judges are handling bail hearings, because we are going to have to hold some of our folks accountable. We need to make sure that all of the Republican justices of the peace have opponents, especially the ones who have refused to do same-sex marriages.

Overall, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to build on what we have done over the past decade-plus in Harris County. Complacency and disunity will be our biggest opponents. The rest is up to us.

Hemp lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

New rules prohibiting the retail sale and distribution of “smokable” hemp products are unconstitutional, companies argue in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Travis County.

When Texas legalized hemp last year, the legislation explicitly outlawed manufacturing and processing hemp products meant to be smoked. But rules released Sunday defining the state’s hemp program also banned the sale of these products.

That cut off a major source of income for many small businesses that sell hemp in Texas.

[…]

The lawsuit argues the ban of manufacturing and processing smokable products enacted as part of the law is unconstitutional and that the ban on distributing and selling these products is not valid.

Jax Finkel, executive director of the Texas Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said banning the sale of smokable products goes beyond the intent of the bill.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. There’s a more detailed story here.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County District Court on Wednesday, the companies are asking a judge to declare the ban unconstitutional and allow hemp products intended for smoking or vaping to be produced and sold legally across the state.

“At a time when the Texas economy is reeling from the fiscal impact of COVID-19, it is unfortunate that the State chose to foreclose such a large economic opportunity for our state and instead chose to force long-standing Texas businesses and jobs across the border to neighboring states, such as Oklahoma,” said attorney Chelsie Spencer, counsel for lead plaintiff Crown Distributing LLC.

“Crown Distributing, which manufactures the popular Wild Hemp brand of smokable products, stands to lose $59.6 million in revenue over the next five years if the bans are upheld,” Spencer told Marijuana Moment in an email. “The state of Texas stands to lose $2.9 million in sales tax revenue alone.”

Texas legalized hemp in 2019, in large part to capture a piece of an industry that is booming following the federal legalization of the crop through the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp, a category of cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC, has a variety of uses: Its seeds are a nutritious food source, its fibrous stalks can be made into textiles or building materials and its flowers can produce a variety of cannabinoids, most notably cannabidiol (CBD).

Texas’s hemp law as passed by the legislature specifically prohibited the manufacture of hemp products intended for smoking or vaping, though it left open the door for selling products made out of state. But a year later, regulators at the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) issued rules extending that ban to forbid the retail sale of any smokable hemp products. That restriction took effect on Sunday.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that both those provisions should be overturned. The state legislature’s ban on processing and manufacturing smokable products violated the state constitution’s protection of economic freedom, they say, while DSHS lacked the authority to extend lawmakers’ ban to include retail sales.

“DSHS characterizes banning distribution and retail as ‘a logical extension’ of banning manufacturing,” the lawsuit says. “But even if this were true (it is not), agencies have no authority to enact rules that they deem to be a ‘logical extension’ of law.”

[…]

“If allowed to move forward, these bans on smokable hemp products will shutter businesses across the state, resulting in a loss of jobs and tax revenue,” the companies said in their complaint. “They impede the economic liberty of Texas businesses, pose an existential threat to Texas hemp manufacturers, farmers, and retailers, and are sure to stifle growth of a budding Texas industry.”

As for the ban on producing and manufacturing smokable hemp products, the companies say it violates the state constitution’s protections against arbitrary economic restrictions.

“There is no plausible law enforcement benefit from banning the Texas manufacture and processing of smokable hemp products,” the lawsuit argues. “Imposing an arbitrary constraint here is particularly perverse because the law does not ban the use or consumption of smokable hemp products. As such, Texas consumers will simply buy smokable products made out-of-state.”

“Stated differently,” it continues, “if Texas had banned the processing and manufacture of cheese in Texas, Texans wouldn’t stop eating cheese.”

See here for more on the hemp legalization bill (HB1325), which has also had the effect of making it a lot harder to prosecute marijuana cases. I’d be very interested to hear what a lawyer thinks about this complaint. I’ll say that the bits quoted here sound a lot like political arguments, which were made during the discussion of the bill. Don’t get me wrong, I largely agree with those arguments, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have any purchase in a courtroom. Still, this could be interesting, and it may help push the broader legalization argument forward. Perhaps we’ll get another incremental bill this session; we are for sure not getting anything more ambitious than that as long as Dan Patrick is Lt. Governor. But there’s a lot of room for small steps, and who knows, maybe this will end up being a big one. I wouldn’t count on it, but you never know. Reform Austin and the Hemp Industry Daily have more.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

It’s even harder to prosecute pot cases now

Such a shame.

What if lawmakers writing one of the most consequential laws to come out of last year’s legislative session, legalizing hemp in Texas, forgot to include a small, but crucial detail that could get your marijuana possession charges dropped?

That’s what happened last week, after a Brazos County court judge concluded the new law omitted a date typically included in state crime legislation. As a result, misdemeanor charges against a Texas A&M University student arrested on the day of his 2018 college graduation were summarily tossed.

The decision is the latest stumbling block that Texas’s nine-month-old hemp law has presented for police and prosecutors committed to pursuing low-level marijuana possession cases. Although the decision does not bind other judges, attorneys said the successful tactic had the potential to change the course of hundreds of pending cases across the state.

[…]

New state crime laws always include a clear dividing line, typically written as a date, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Before the date, the old law applies; after, the new law does.

Yet the hemp bill, which was passed through the Agriculture and Livestock Committee instead of the regular criminal justice panels, neglected to specify when the new pot definition started. A little-known provision of Texas law says that without clear transition instructions, if a new law lowers the penalty for a crime it can be applied retroactively.

The district and county attorneys association noted the missing language early on. “The law went into effect on June 10, 2019, but it is unclear whether it applies to previously-filed marijuana cases pending on that date,” it warned In a June letter to member prosecutors.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, did not return a call to his office seeking comment on the AWOL date.

Criminal defense attorneys noticed it, too, and began seeking cases to test if the new law could also be used to challenge older possession charges.

Long story short, they found a defendant in College Station who wanted to have his day in court, and their argument that the new law applied resulted in the dismissal of the case because the cops hadn’t tested the pot they said they found. Testing is another problem for prosecutors, and the DPS has said they don’t have enough money to handle the demand from the locals, leaving them in limbo. Which is fine by me. Let’s keep this natural experiment going and see for ourselves once and for all how little there is to fear from not being hardasses about weed.

The Observer overviews the DA primary

You’ve had a chance to listen to my interviews with DA candidates, now read this story for more on this important primary.

Kim Ogg

When Kim Ogg first ran for Harris County district attorney, she had a simple pitch for criminal justice reform: stop jailing people for petty pot possession. The position, novel to Houston politics in 2014, proved so popular that even her Republican opponent embraced a version of it. Ogg lost that first race, but she tried again in 2016, this time adding bail reform and a promise to create “a system that doesn’t oppress the poor” to her platform. She beat the incumbent by 8 percentage points to become Harris County’s first Democratic DA in 40 years.

Ogg was among the first wave of reform-minded “progressive prosecutors” elected across the country in recent years. This new class rejected a tough-on-crime ethos, advocating instead for fairness and jailing fewer people. Ogg quickly declared herself “part of the national reform movement” and started dismissing low-level marijuana charges for people who took a class and paid a fine. She also rejected so-called “trace cases” involving miniscule drug amounts and called for diversion instead of jail for small-time offenders. 

Over the course of her first term, however, progressives have soured on Ogg. While she publicly supported bail reform, she continued to seek high bail for people charged with minor offenses. She further disappointed them by objecting to historic bail reforms that followed a years-long lawsuit to end the practice of keeping low-level offenders in jail simply because they’re poor. Progressives have also bristled at Ogg’s repeated attempts to expand her office.

Now at the end of her first term, Ogg feels squeezed between opposing forces: a police union that accuses her of being soft on crime and critics on the left who say she’s failed to live up to her reputation. She’s facing a combative Democratic primary next month, flanked by challengers who insist that she’s stood in the way of progress during her first term. A Democratic sweep in the midterms that turned Harris County solid blue further emboldened local organizers who are seeking a new kind of reform prosecutor. 

While Ogg credits herself with boosting diversion programs and reducing prison sentences during her first term, her critics insist more fundamental changes are needed to fix yawning racial inequalities in the local justice system and to decarcerate one of the largest jails in the country. There was palpable tension between Ogg and the forces that helped elect her at a ACLU of Texas candidate forum in downtown Houston last Thursday. Some people in the standing-room-only crowd jeered as Ogg urged them to stick with her “balanced approach” to reform. After the forum, a woman walked up to Ogg and began arguing with her before campaign staffers quickly intervened.

In a phone call this week, Ogg sounded aggrieved and unappreciated, the way incumbents often do during tough re-election fights. “I started running before people in our local political arena even knew what a district attorney did,” she said. “Everything I wanted to do was a reformation of decades of static prosecutorial policy in Harris County. So of course I’m a reformer, and to be labeled otherwise—that’s a political issue more than a factual one.”

Ogg’s primary is one of several prosecutor races in Texas this year that could redefine the bounds of criminal justice reform in the state. As state lawmakers fail to make meaningful progress each legislative session, advocates for change have increasingly focused on amplifying key district attorney, judge, and sheriff races to transform how their communities are policed and prosecuted.

The article touches on the race in Travis County as well, where incumbent Margaret Moore is under similar fire. I have no idea what will happen in these races – they’re as prominent as any local election, but it’s hard to say how much of that breaks through in the non-stop fusillade of national political news – but they will have a significant effect in Harris and Travis Counties. A side issue I’ve been pondering, which I asked Audia Jones about when I spoke to her, is whether the Legislature (especially but not exclusively if it remains in Republican hands) will step in and try to impose some limits on what prosecutors can and can’t do. I can very easily see this as a red meat law-and-order issue for Dan Patrick (and, whenever someone wakes him up and reminds him that he’s Governor, Greg Abbott) in the 2021 session. I have no idea what they may try to do, but I’m sure their imagination won’t be so limited. Just something to keep in mind.

Marijuana arrests stay down

We really should view this as the new normal, and not a problem to be “fixed”.

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

[…]

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

See here for the background. There’s no serious argument to be made that the drop in marijuana arrests has had any negative effect on public safety, but it has had the positive effect of keeping thousands of basically harmless people out of the criminal justice system. The main problem with the new status quo is that the reduction in prosecutions is completely ad hoc and not systemic. Whether one gets arrested and jailed or warned and released is entirely a function of where you are and which law enforcement agency is dealing with you. The Lege in 2021 needs to look at what has happened since this inadvertent loosening of marijuana laws and make it a real, permanent thing. We’ve already seem that nothing bad will come of it. Grits and the Current have more.

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.