Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy

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.

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.

Marijuana reform advocates get their day

This will be worth watching closely.

Rep. Joe Moody

Four proposals to relax penalties for possessing pot have been scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, setting up what is sure to be a closely-watched debate in the middle of the legislative session.

It will not be the first Texas committee hearing on marijuana bills, which historically have been introduced and heard, but ultimately killed. This time, however, optimistic supporters will benefit from the makeup of the committee, which this year counts three Democrats and a pro-legalization Republican among its seven members. The panel is led by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.

“There’s no question that we’re hopeful that this committee will be especially open to considering these bills,” said Phillip Martin, deputy director of Progress Texas, an Austin-based liberal organization that is helping lead the push. “A lot of the legislators on the committee understand the importance of the issue.”

The legislation is still unlikely to win final approval in the conservative-dominated Legislature, but Martin and other members of the bipartisan Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition say committee approval would represent a step forward in a years-long process.

The coalition has collected nearly 15,000 signatures of support and plan to deliver them to the Capitol on Wednesday, Martin said.

Here’s Progress Texas’ report on the bills that will get a hearing on Wednesday.

Rep. Joe Moody’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 507

  • The most effective civil penalties bill filed
  • Changes possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty – similar to jaywalking or not wearing a seat belt
  • Anything over one ounce of marijuana remains a class B misdemeanor

Rep. Harold Dutton’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 414

  • Would change any marijuana possession less than one ounce to a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Gene Wu’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 325

  • Possession of less than .35 ounces of marijuana becomes a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 1115

  • Rather than potentially being arrested when carrying up to four ounces of marijuana an officer will only give a citation; However, the person charged is still responsible for appearing in court at a later date.
  • Does not reduce the penalty of marijuana possession (Class A or B misdemeanor), which can still result in jail time.

Also up for a hearing is Rep. David Simpson’s full scale legalization bill. As the story notes, the Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition is putting most of its energy into Rep. Moody’s civil penalties bill. Bills to legalize medical marijuana have been referred to a different committee and don’t appear to have as much traction. The bills to be heard Wednesday face opposition from local sheriffs and an uncertain future in the Senate. Still, just having a hearing for them is something. I look forward to seeing how it goes. For further reading on the subject, see this interview with Rice sociologist William Martin.