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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.

Senate approves one medical marijuana bill

A pleasant surprise.

Rep. Stephanie Klick

Marijuana advocates were handed an unlikely victory Wednesday after the Texas Senate advanced a bill greatly expanding the list of debilitating medical conditions that can legally be treated by cannabis oil in the state.

Although the upper chamber’s leadership once opposed bills that would relax the state’s pot policies, the Senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, that expands the state’s Compassionate Use Program, which currently allows the sale of cannabis oil only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill now heads back to the Texas House, where lawmakers can either approve the Senate changes or opt to iron out their differences in a conference committee before lawmakers adjourn in five days. Klick did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether she’d accept the Senate changes to her bill.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate would expand the list of conditions that qualify for the medicine to include all forms of epilepsy; seizure disorders; multiple sclerosis; spasticity; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; terminal cancer; autism and incurable neurodegenerative diseases. The bill also axes a requirement in current statute that says those wanting access to the medicine need the approval of two licensed neurologists, rather than one.

“This bill is about compassion,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the Senate sponsor of the bill. “For patients participating in the [Compassionate Use Program], they have had a remarkable and life-altering change because of this. That’s compassion.”

Under Campbell’s version of the bill, the Texas Department on Public Safety would still have oversight of the Compassionate Use Program. Her revised bill also keeps intact the 0.5% cap on the amount of the psychoactive element in marijuana, known as THC, that medical cannabis products are legally allowed to contain. Campbell’s version also axes a provision in Klick’s bill that calls for a research program to assess how effective cannabis is as a medical treatment option for various conditions.

See here for the background. For whatever the reason, Dan Patrick decided to cooperate and play nice, and so here we are. It’s not much, and it brings us no closer to the criminal justice reform part of this, but it’s a step forward, and the more of those the better. The House still needs to approve the Senate changes, and Greg Abbott still needs to sign it, but I feel good about this one going the distance.

House passes two bills to expand medical marijuana use

Bill Number One:

Rep. Eddie Lucio III

The Texas House on Monday advanced a bill that would expand the list of debilitating conditions that allow Texans to legally use medical cannabis.

House Bill 1365 would add Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and a bevy of other illnesses to an existing state program that currently applies only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill would also increase from three to 12 the number of dispensaries the Texas Department of Public Safety can authorize to begin growing and distributing the product and authorizes the implementation of cannabis testing facilities to analyze the content, safety and potency of medical cannabis.

After a relatively short debate, the lower chamber gave preliminary approval to Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III’s bill in a 121-23 vote. But the legislation still faces major hurdles in the more conservative Texas Senate before it can become law.

“Today, I don’t just stand here as a member of this body but as a voice for thousands of people in this state that are too sick to function or that live in constant, debilitating pain,” Lucio, D-Brownsville, told other lawmakers.

The Compassionate Use Act, signed into law in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas. While Lucio’s bill strikes the residency requirement, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, successfully tacked on an amendment Monday saying those wanting to try the medicine only needed approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who only needs to be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

Lucio’s bill is one of two which aim to expand the scope of the narrow Compassionate Use Act that have gained traction this legislative session. Another measure by Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick, an author of the 2015 program, is scheduled to get debated by the Texas House later in the week.

See here, here, and here for some background. The Compassionate Use Act was a big step forward, but it was also very limited, which this bill aims to improve on. As does Bill Number Two:

Four years after state Rep. Stephanie Klick authored legislation that legalized the sale of medical cannabis oil to Texans suffering from intractable epilepsy, the House gave tentative approval Tuesday to a bill by the Fort Worth Republican that would expand the list of patients eligible for the medicine.

House Bill 3703 would add multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity to the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for cannabis oil.

Her bill would also allow the state’s three dispensaries that are eligible to grow and distribute the medicine to open other locations if the Texas Department of Public Safety determines more are needed to meet patients’ needs. And the legislation calls for a research program to assess how effective cannabis is as a medical treatment option for various conditions.

[…]

The Compassionate Use Act, authored by Klick in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Under the law, Texans with intractable epilepsy only qualify for the oil if they’ve tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Klick successfully added an amendment to her bill Tuesday saying the second doctor only needed to be a licensed physician, rather than a specialized neurologist.

Unlike Klick’s bill, Lucio’s strikes the residency requirement and says those wanting to try the medicine only need approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who must be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

Either or both bills would be fine, and would do a lot to help people who need it. Alas, we live in a state that has unwisely chosen to give a lot of power to Dan Patrick. Sucks to be us.

House votes to ease up a bit on pot

It’s a small step forward, but it’s a step forward.

Rep. Joe Moody

After a brief discussion, the Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would reduce the penalties for low-level possession of marijuana — a move lauded as a win by those eager for the state to take its first major step toward loosening its staunch marijuana laws.

But hopes of turning the bill into law remain slim. After the House grants final approval for the bill — usually just a formality — it will head to the Senate, where presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has expressed opposition to the idea of loosening marijuana possession penalties.

The lower chamber voted 98-43 in favor of House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, after he changed it on the chamber floor from a decriminalization measure to one that reduces the penalties for possession. The bill lowers possession of 1 ounce or less from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, which is the same classification as a traffic ticket.

After state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who applauded Moody for spearheading the bill, asked the Democrat why his measure had been “watered down,” Moody said he did so in the hopes of getting it to the governor’s desk.

“I’m not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect. If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do,” Moody said. “We can’t keep hauling 75,000 Texans to jail every year.”

Those found to possess 2 ounces or less or marijuana but more than 1 ounce would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor — punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, jail time or both.

“When I first proposed changing our criminal penalty for personal use of marijuana to a civil penalty, there was some support and even more caution,” Moody told other representatives.

The revised version of HB 63 would make it so Texans caught with 1 ounce or less of marijuana can’t be arrested. Instead, judges would automatically put those offenders on deferred adjudication probation. If an offender successfully completes the terms of his or her probation and does not commit more than one offense in a calendar year, his or her record would be expunged, Moody said Monday. The bill would also ensure that Texans possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana will not have their driver’s licenses suspended.

As Rep. Moody says, this is not the reform we deserve, but it’s the best we can hope to do now. Unfortunately, it’s all symbolic thanks to the implacable opposition of Dan Patrick. You want better marijuana laws in Texas, you need to vote Dan Patrick out of office. Still, just getting this vote to the floor is a first. Maybe it can be tacked onto something in the Senate as an amendment. Baby steps, baby steps. The Observer has more.

Senior stoners

Makes a lot of sense, really.

Most states now have legal medical marijuana, and 10 of them, including California, allow anyone 21 or older to use pot recreationally. The federal government still outlaws the drug even as acceptance increases. The 2018 General Social Survey, an annual sampling of Americans’ views, found a record 61 percent back legalization, and those 65 and older are increasingly supportive.

Indeed, many industry officials say the fastest-growing segment of their customer base is people like Atkin — aging baby boomers or even those a little older who are seeking to treat the aches and sleeplessness and other maladies of old age with the same herb that many of them once passed around at parties.

“I would say the average age of our customers is around 60, maybe even a little older,” said Kelty Richardson, a registered nurse with the Halos Health clinic in Boulder, Colorado, which provides medical examinations and sells physician-recommended cannabis through its online store.

Its medical director, Dr. Joseph Cohen, conducts “Cannabis 101” seminars at the nearby Balfour Senior Living community for residents who want to know which strains are best for easing arthritic pain or improving sleep.

Relatively little scientific study has verified the benefits of marijuana for specific problems. There’s evidence pot can relieve chronic pain in adults, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, but the study also concluded that the lack of scientific information poses a risk to public health.

[…]

People Lee’s age — 65 and over — are the fastest-growing segment of the marijuana-using population, said Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He believes more studies on the drug’s effects on older people are needed. And while it may improve quality of life by relieving pain, anxiety and other problems, he said, careless, unsupervised use can cause trouble.

“We know that cannabis can cause side effects, particularly in older people,” he said. “They can get dizzy. It can even impair memory if the dose is too high or new ingredients are wrong. And dizziness can lead to falls, which can be quite serious.”

Richardson said Colorado saw an uptick in hospital visits by older users soon after the state legalized cannabis in 2012. The problem, he said, was often caused by novices downing too many edibles.

I don’t often blog about stories from other states, but with the Lege in session and efforts continuing to expand marijuana legalization here, this seemed useful to note. I’ll say this much, the people described in this story – mostly white people over the age of 60 – is a pretty good representation of the Republican Party base here in Texas (and elsewhere, to be honest). Given that the single biggest impediment to loosening the marijuana laws in Texas is Dan Patrick, any real progress in the short term is going to have to come from his voters telling him they want to see progress on this front. Longer term, we can try to use this issue (among many others) to boot him out of office in 2022, but between now and then is at least one more legislative session. If you want better pot laws in this state, get your old relatives to call Dan Patrick’s office and tell him that’s what they want, too.

Marijuana diversions

Good progress so far. What can we do to build on it?

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office estimated on Friday that it’s saved $35 million and arrested 14,000 fewer people since the start of a program to divert low-level marijuana offenses.

The announcement marked the two-year anniversary of the initiative, which allows misdemeanor anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana to avoid an arrest, ticket or court appearances if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class.

“We know we have reduced the arrest rate,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a news conference Friday morning. “That gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls.”

The initiative launched in early 2017 was one of Ogg’s first steps to reform, earning her accolades among criminal justice reformers and marijuana activists. Since then, the program has expanded to include parolees and defendants on probation – but still some experts have questioned whether the initiative, and Ogg’s office, could go further.

“Compared to past district attorneys in Harris County, Kim Ogg’s record looks promising,” said criminal justice expert Scott Henson, with the nonprofit Just Liberty. “Compared to so-called ‘progressive’ district attorneys at the national level like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she looks very moderate.”

Before the program started, Harris County law enforcement agencies typically filed around 10,000 misdemeanor weed cases per year, officials said Friday. Since the program began, that number has dropped to about 3,000 people per year.

[…]

[HPD Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan] Beedle suggested that Ogg’s office isn’t getting enough credit for the progressive shift in marijuana prosecutions, but reformers like Henson have advocated for dropping marijuana prosecutions across the board – whether or not the would-be arrestee successfully completes an education class.

“In a time when 10 states have already legalized fully, I think that marijuana diversion is probably looked at as less aggressively reformist than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” Henson said. “I mean, Greg Abbott thinks it should be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. So she’s not that far out of line with centrist opinion.”

I’m not as inclined to give Abbott credit for his belief. Nothing has passed the Lege yet, and Dan Patrick remains a significant obstacle to any reforms. It’s good that Abbott himself isn’t an obstacle, but let’s hold off on the plaudits till something gets done.

That said, I take Henson’s point that while diversion has been a big change here in Harris County, it’s not on the leading edge of reformist thought anymore. So, while we can be glad for the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s fair to ask what comes next. What can we do to push these arrest numbers down further? What do we need to do to drag the more recalcitrant law enforcement agencies within the county along? What’s the next opportunity once marijuana arrests are mostly a thing of the past? These are the questions we need to be asking and answering.

How legal pot affects Texas

It has many effects.

In just two weeks in October, the legal landscape for marijuana use in North America changed dramatically.

First, Canada opened sales of legalized pot for recreational use, and then Mexico’s high court delivered a definitive ruling that citizens have the right to possess the weed for their personal use. That leaves Texas virtually surrounded by states that allow marijuana for medical use — but not for recreational purposes — as well as being sandwiched between two neighboring countries that have liberalized their stance on personal usage of the drug.

And while the Lone Star State is a long way from following the example of Canada and Mexico, there seems to be growing support for at least reducing stiff criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the weed. Currently, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a six-month jail term and a $2,000 fine.

“Even in Texas, public opinion seems to have shifted from criminalization to at least decriminalization, with strengthening support for legalization,” said Nora Demleitner, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia and the lead author of the textbook “Sentencing: Law and Policy.”

[…]

Despite the criminal penalties, Texas has two of the Top 10 consumer cities in the country. Houston occupies the fourth spot with an estimated 21 metric tons of weed consumed last year, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the 2018 Cannabis Price Index from the German company Seedo, which tracks the market around the world. Dallas is number seven with 15 metric tons.

That high demand in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, some experts say, is not being met by traditional drug smuggling networks alone.

“Today in Texas, consumers easily find a wider variety of cannabis products than a few years ago coming from all over the place,” said Dean Becker, a Baker Institute contributing expert in drug policy.

Becker explained that states like Colorado, California and Oregon are growing more than their markets can absorb, and smugglers are flourishing moving the merchandise to other marketplaces. Mexico, he said, isn’t the main Texas supplier anymore as their producers are struggling to compete with the higher quality of U.S. grown products.

[…]

“The cannabis industry is a job creator, which Mexico and Canada realize, and it also cuts into the portfolio of criminals by making its use and sale a legitimate business that (creates) jobs and revenue,” said Grissom, the former federal prosecutor.

Grissom says Colorado is a good example, which reported total cannabis sales of $1.5 billion in 2017, and a staggering $5.7 billion since sales began in January 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“These funds did not go to criminals but to entrepreneurs who created over 20,000 new full-time jobs that paid a living wage as well as a new source of (tax) revenue for the state,” he said.

Overall, “the nascent U.S. cannabis market is already double the size of Canada’s, at $8.5 billion dollars,” said Brad Alexander, a senior adviser at McGuireWoods Consulting, a public policy advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He predicts that by 2022, this market could top $20 billion.

As the story notes, multiple DAs, mostly in big counties, are now de-emphasizing pot prosecutions, and Texas legalized – in a very limited way – a form of medical marijuana. Greg Abbott has made some comments recently about supporting a reduction in penalties for possession, but I’ll believe that when I see an anointed bill that is supposed to accomplish that. As for the prospects for legalization, I’ll just note that the arguments for it – economic benefit, especially as we are currently losing business from Texans who want to engage in it to neighboring states – sound an awful lot to me like the perennial arguments for expanded gambling. I don’t need to tell you how successful that pursuit has been. I think some small reforms by the Lege, with broader reforms pushed at the county level, will happen. Beyond that, keep your hopes in check.

No cannabis for you

Good luck getting your hands on medical marijuana in Texas.

It’s been about a year since the first legally grown marijuana plants were harvested in Texas for their medicinal oils. But since then, fewer than 600 patients have seen any benefit out of the estimated 150,000 who suffer uncontrollable epileptic seizures that the medicine is meant to help.

Roughly 45 doctors, mostly concentrated in urban areas, have signed up to prescribe the cannabidiol. Just three companies in Central Texas have been licensed to distribute the drug. One doesn’t seem to have opened its doors, and another reports losing money with such a small client base.

“The way to assure the Compassionate Use Program has a future is by expanding access to more patients,” said Morris Denton, CEO of Compassionate Cultivation in the Austin area. “The worst thing that can happen is nothing gets done, because then we set the program back.”

Texas’ therapeutic marijuana program is among the strictest in the nation, giving only patients with intractable epilepsy access to cannabidiol that’s low in THC, the element that gives pot users a high.

[…]

The Texas Compassionate Use Act became law in 2015, but the rollout has been slow and rocky.

Despite getting more than 40 applications, the Texas Department of Public Safety licensed just three companies last year to distribute cannabidiol, the minimum number allowed by the law.

Patients need sign-off from two doctors to use the marijuana-derived oil. But so far, fewer than 50 certified epileptologists and neurologists have registered to participate. None is in the Rio Grande Valley or West Texas, records show, meaning patients there must travel far to see a qualified physician.

Some doctors are reluctant to enroll because Texas law requires they prescribe the drug instead of recommending it, a phrase other states use to sidestep federal marijuana prohibitions, advocates said. So far, 574 patients have been issued prescriptions, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program.

See here for some background, and here for a map of where the registered doctors are. If you live west of San Antonio, it’s Amarillo or nothing. There will be bills introduced to expand medical marijuana in Texas – Sen. Jose Menendez has already filed one such bill – and they may have a chance to get through. Greg Abbott has softened his stance, both party platforms are calling for marijuana reform, there’s popular support, and so forth. It’s just that it’s not easy to get any bill passed, and if a given bill isn’t a priority then it will be in line behind those that are. I don’t think there’s much in the way of opposition to expanding medical marijuana, and maybe to some other reforms, but I don’t think it’s a priority, either.

It’s bill-filing season

Here are some highlights from Day One:

  • House Bill 49, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would get rid of daylight saving time in Texas. Some lawmakers have tried to do this in past sessions.
  • House Bill 63, by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make it a civil offense — not a crime — to be caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. Moody’s bill was one of several filed Monday aiming to loosen marijuana laws in Texas.
  • House Bill 84, also by Moody, would repeal the section of the Texas penal code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the section is unenforceable, but it remains on the books.
  • House Bill 222, by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would prohibit Texas cities from adopting or enforcing ordinances that would require employers to offer their employees paid sick leave. San Antonio and Austin have passed paid sick leave ordinances this year. Soon after Austin passed its ordinance, state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, announced that he would file legislation banning the ordinances, but Workman was defeated in Tuesday’s election.
  • House Joint Resolution 24, by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would propose a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund at least half of the cost of funding public schools. If the amendment were approved by voters, local property tax collections would not apply to the state’s share.
  • Senate Bill 66, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s franchise tax.

My reaction, in order: Oppose, favor, favor, oppose, favor, neutral. It makes me happy that the pro-sick employees faction had to find a new lackey after their original sponsor got tossed. I’ll be following this stuff as usual as we morph into the legislative season.

Have a Coke and a toke

Dude.

Aurora Cannabis Inc. led pot stocks higher after Coca-Cola Co. said it’s eyeing the cannabis drinks market, becoming the latest beverage company to tap into surging demand for marijuana products as traditional sales slow.

Coca-Cola says it’s monitoring the nascent industry and is interested in drinks infused with CBD — the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that treats pain but doesn’t get you high. The Atlanta-based soft drinks maker is in talks with Canadian marijuana producer Aurora Cannabis to develop the beverages, according to a report from BNN Bloomberg Television.

“We are closely watching the growth of non-psychoactive CBD as an ingredient in functional wellness beverages around the world,” Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg News. “The space is evolving quickly. No decisions have been made at this time.” Landers declined to comment on Aurora.

[…]

Coke’s possible foray into the marijuana sector comes as beverage makers are trying to add cannabis as a trendy ingredient while their traditional businesses slow. Last month, Corona beer brewer Constellation Brands Inc. announced it will spend $3.8 billion to increase its stake in Canopy Growth Corp., the Canadian marijuana producer with a value that exceeds C$13 billion ($10 billion).

Molson Coors Brewing Co. is starting a joint venture with Quebec’s Hexo’s Corp., formerly known as Hydropothecary Corp., to develop cannabis drinks in Canada. Diageo PLC, maker of Guinness beer, is holding discussions with at least three Canadian cannabis producers about a possible deal, BNN Bloomberg reported last month. Heineken NV’s Lagunitas craft-brewing label has launched a brand specializing in non-alcoholic drinks infused with THC, marijuana’s active ingredient.

Well, we have plenty of caffeine-infused food and beverages on the market, so this was only a matter of time. I personally don’t have any interest in cannabis, but I have no doubt that plenty of other folks will. If you really want to know when our state’s marijuana laws will start to change, this is likely to be your answer: When big business interests start lobbying to make it happen so that they can make a boatload of money. Ain’t life grand? Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a snack.

Pot versus Pete

I love this story.

Marijuana reform activists have created a new super PAC aimed exclusively at defeating Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, the House Rules Committee chairman who has blocked cannabis reform legislation from reaching the House floor.

Marijuana Policy Project founder and former Executive Director Rob Kampia is leading the effort, which he said is crucial to legalizing medical marijuana federally and affirming federalism for recreational pot, two policies supported in principle by President Trump.

“Everyone knows who he is and that he’s our biggest problem on Capitol Hill. Half of my job has already been done by Pete Sessions himself,” Kampia told the Washington Examiner. “All I’m going to do is pass the hat.”

[…]

Kampia left MPP last year and now leads the Marijuana Leadership Campaign, a small group with a narrower agenda. He recently registered the super PAC, called Texans Removing Outdated and Unresponsive Politicians, ahead of a Wednesday donor meeting in New Orleans.

“[Sessions] is in fact what I call a sphincter who is constipating the process,” Kampia said. “The reason we haven’t won is just process; it’s not content.”

Kampia aims to raise $500,000, which he believes he can do after “having raised $4 million a year for this issue” at MPP, where he oversaw a variety of state efforts, including a major role in Colorado’s 2012 recreational legalization campaign.

In addition to the super PAC, which can independently spend unlimited amounts, Kampia plans to bundle contributions for the Democrat who wins a May 22 runoff primary and provide support for Libertarian candidate Melina Baker.

“I am going to bundle a whole bunch of checks and send them to the Democrat without talking to the Democrat. You are going to see a bunch of $2,700 checks flowing from the same people who you’re going to see on our [super PAC] reports,” he said.

The district’s two Democratic contenders, Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Although he believes their positions are acceptable, Kampia said, “It doesn’t matter if they are good on marijuana — we just need him out.”

I noted this in my Congressional runoff report, but didn’t get around to running this until now, when we know that Colin Allred is the runoff winner. I just want to say that “Legislative Sphincter” is now the name of my Butthole Surfers tribute band. No joke, though, Pete Sessions is seriously anti-pot – just read the quotes in that Examiner story. As D Magazine noted, both Democratic candidates in the runoff favored medical marijuana, so there was a winner either way for this PAC. I can’t wait to see the ads that Texans Removing Outdated and Unresponsive Politicians produces. The Dallas Observer has more.

Beto and Ted

¡Dale!

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, has invited U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to participate in six debates with O’Rourke across Texas, two of them in Spanish, during their U.S. Senate race.

O’Rourke campaign manager Jody Casey made the proposal in a letter last week to Cruz’s senior staff, adding that the debates should have “media reach to all twenty markets in the state.”

“I would like to begin direct coordination of the debates with your campaign team between now and May 10th,” Casey wrote to Cruz advisers Bryan English and Eric Hollander in the April 24 letter. “Please advise my best point of contact on the Cruz campaign team.”

Cruz previously suggested he is open to debating O’Rourke. Cruz’s campaign said in response to the letter that it was exploring its options.

[…]

After a campaign event Tuesday afternoon in San Antonio, Cruz admitted to reporters that his Spanish “remains lousy” before offering a sentence in the language: “I understand almost everything, but I can’t speak like I want to.” Cruz, whose father came to America from Cuba, chalked up his shoddy Spanish skills to “the curse of the second-generation immigrant,” adding that he suspects many in the Hispanic community can relate.

“A debate in Spanish would not be very good because my Spanish isn’t good enough, but I look forward to debating Congressman O’Rourke,” Cruz said.

I’m sure Beto would be kind enough to let you use Google Translate during the debates, Ted. I think the world is owed these debates. The entertainment value alone is off the charts. and yes, I know, as does Beto, that Cruz was a champion debater in college. So what? This isn’t to be done in front of speech and debate nerds, for competition. It’s to be done in front of voters, for likability and persuasion. Who do you think might be favored in those departments?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Senate campaign.

The U.S. Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke is trending into new territory: the war on drugs.

It is a familiar topic for O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman who has earned a national reputation as an advocate for marijuana legalization since his days on the El Paso City Council. Yet it hadn’t become an issue in the Senate contest until now, as Cruz, the Republican incumbent, ramps up his general election crusade to paint O’Rourke as too liberal for Texas.

Cruz opened the new front Tuesday as he seized on a story published by the Daily Caller, a conservative news site, that claimed O’Rourke “once advocated for the legalization of all narcotics.” The story cited an episode on the El Paso City Council in 2009 where O’Rourke successfully — and controversially — amended a resolution about the war on drugs to urge for an “honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.”

[…]

O’Rourke has not made marijuana legalization a major part of his U.S. Senate campaign. But at town halls and other campaign events, he does not shy away from the topic when the discussion turns toward it or when he is directly asked about it.

Such was the case Saturday morning as O’Rourke made a campaign stop in Sonora, a small city on the western edge of the Hill Country. Soon after he slid into a booth with patrons at a donut shop, he was fielding questions for several minutes about marijuana legalization.

“I’m on a bill that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana once and for all,” O’Rourke told them, later lamenting that the United States is “spending on that war on drugs right now when we could put it into the classroom, into teacher pay, into treating an opioid epidemic, a methamphetamine epidemic that I’m seeing through lots of West Texas right now.”

Cruz, for his part, has long maintained marijuana legalization should be left up to the states, though he personally opposes it. He reiterated that position while speaking with reporters Tuesday in San Antonio.

“I don’t support drug legalization,” Cruz said. “I think drug legalization ends up harming people. I think it particularly hurts young people. It traps them in addiction.”

On marijuana, Cruz added: “I’ve always said that should be a question for the states. I think different states can resolve it differently. So in Texas — if we were voting on it in Texas — I would vote against legalizing it. But I think it’s the prerogative of Texans to make that decision, and I think another state like Colorado can make a very different decision.”

You can click that Daily Caller link if you want – as the Trib story notes, it’s based on a misstatement of O’Rourke. I just want to note that being anti-marijuana legalization isn’t necessarily a winning issue for Cruz. It’s hard to know how something like this will play out in a real campaign – who the candidates are, what the electorate looks like, how the issue is portrayed, things like that all matter. The point I’m making is that this isn’t some obviously uncomfortable place for Beto to be, where Cruz is bashing him for a stance that lacks public support. Beto can fight back with more or less the equivalent of “Yeah? So what?” That’s not a bad place to be.

Medical marijuana is now available in Texas

To a very limited number of people, and only under a very strict set of circumstances.

Modern medicine has helped Laura Campbell’s 27-year-old daughter, Sierra, fight off many of her persistent seizures. At her peak, Sierra suffered from more than three seizures a day. Now, she’s down to one or two per month.

But the gains come with their own frustrations.

“She takes five pills twice a day, plus more if she needs an emergency supplement in case of a seizure. It damages her brain every time she has [a seizure]. Her IQ has gone down and her neurological functions are suffering,” Campbell said, trailing off between tears. “With every seizure she has, it just gets worse for her.”

Now Campbell, an Austin resident, is hoping she can wean her daughter off the “harsh” meds and turn to cannabis oil instead. That treatment was legalized in 2015, and a dispensary in Schulenburg made its first delivery of the oil to a young Texas child last week.

But as dispensaries are opening, Texans like Campbell’s daughter might still have a hard time getting access to the oil from marijuana plants. Currently, fewer than 20 doctors across the state are registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety to prescribe it.

They are able to do so under the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the sale of a specific kind of cannabis oil for a small group of Texans: epilepsy patients, like Sierra, whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

But to qualify for the medicine, Texans must have tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. The patients also must be permanent residents of Texas and get approval from two of the 18 doctors listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Under the law, a physician can only sign up for the state registry if, among several other requirements, the doctor has dedicated a significant portion of his or her clinical practice to the evaluation and treatment of epilepsy and is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in either epilepsy or neurology.

The bill in question was passed in 2015, so it’s taken awhile just to get to this point. There are only three dispensaries in the state, and there’s not likely to be many more doctors on the registry, at least not while Jeff Sessions is on a reefer madness kick. The effect of this law should be big for those who are able to take advantage of it, but the number of such people will be very small. I hope that effect is enough to allow for a broader bill in the next Legislature, but the surer route to that destination is to vote for candidates who are willing to support that outcome. The Chron has more.

A little concern trolling from the WSJ

This is a story that tries to stir up concerns about all those Democratic Congressional candidates spending money and energy running against each other in the primaries. I flagged it mostly because of the CD07 content at the end.

Rep. John Culberson

In Houston, the Seventh Congressional District is ethnically diverse, well-educated, suburban and includes some of the city’s wealthiest voting precincts. Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Trump here by 1.4 percentage points, but Mr. Culberson won by 12 points.

The DCCC sent a full-time organizer to Houston in February. She has been working to recruit volunteers and train organizers to defeat Mr. Culberson, without favoring a specific Democratic challenger.

The top fundraiser is Alex Triantaphyllis, founder of a nonprofit group that mentors refugees. He says the party’s “best approach is to be as connected and engaged in this community as possible.”

Primary opponent Laura Moser said at a recent candidate forum that many people in the party “are trying too hard to win over the crossover vote while abandoning our base.” She became a national activist last year by starting an anti-Trump text-message service for “resisting extremism in America.”

In August, Ms. Moser criticized Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.), the current DCCC chairman, in Vogue magazine for saying last spring that the party shouldn’t rule out supporting antiabortion candidates.

Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer also running in the Democratic primary, says she welcomes the lively primary race because it helps to have “a lot of people out there getting people motivated” about next year’s midterm election.

She also acknowledges a downside: “We are raising money to spend against each other rather than against John Culberson.” Another candidate has already run unsuccessfully for the seat three times.

Some Democratic candidates worry they will face pressure to tack to the left because people who attend political events early in the campaign tend to be the party’s most liberal activists. A questioner at a forum in July sponsored by the anti-Trump activist group Indivisible demanded a yes or no answer on whether candidates support the legalization of marijuana.

“There is definitely a danger if you have a circular firing squad over who is the most leftist in the room,” Democratic candidate Jason Westin, an oncologist, said in an interview. “This is not a blue district.”

This was the first mention I had seen of the DCCC organizer in CD07. Since that story appeared, I’ve seen a couple of Facebook invitations to events featuring her, which focus on basic organizing stuff. As we now know, there’s a Republican PAC person here in CD07. It’s getting real, to say the least.

I have no idea why the story singles out marijuana legalization as an issue that might force one of the CD07 candidates to “tack to the left”. Support for marijuana legalization is pretty mainstream these days, and that includes Republicans. The second-highest votegetter in Harris County in 2016 was DA Kim Ogg, who ran and won on a platform of reforming how drug cases are handled, which includes prosecuting far fewer of them. Presumptive Democratic nominee for US Senate Beto O’Rourke supports marijuana legalization. If any candidate in CD07 feels pressured to support marijuana legalization, it’s because they’re out of step with prevailing opinion, not because they’re being dragged in front of an issue.

Finally, on the broader question of all these contested primaries, Lizzie Fletcher mostly sums up how I feel. I believe all these primaries will be a big driver of turnout, which will help set the narrative of higher Democratic engagement. If there’s anything a candidate should feel pressed to do, it’s to pledge to support whoever wins in their primary so we can present a united front for November. I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road and some nastiness in these campaigns as the days wear on, but overall this story sounds like the Journal trying to throw a rope to its surely despondent Republican readers. We Dems were telling ourselves the same kind of story in 2010 when the Tea Party was first making things uncomfortable for Republicans. I’d rather have this energy than not, even if some of it will ultimately be wasted.

More pre-trial diversion

DA Kim Ogg moves forward on more campaign promises.

Kim Ogg

During a press conference Tuesday, Ogg laid out in broad strokes the policy recommendations written by the committees and emphasized that she is seeking participation from experts and Houston’s leaders.

“We listen to the community,” she said, flanked by about 30 volunteers including former HPD Chief C. O. Bradford and Thurgood Marshall School of Law professor Lydia D. Johnson. “We are evidence-based and data driven, but it is important to know how the community wants tax dollars spent to enhance public safety.”

Ogg released the full reports from committees on officer-involved shootings, evidence integrity, equality, immigration, bail-bond reform, mental health and diversity.

Many of the reforms proposed using technology and data more efficiently to streamline the criminal justice system, such as moving to a paperless district attorney’s office or using evidence-based risk assessments to determine bail amounts.

Tarsha Jackson, the Harris County Director with the Texas Organizing Project, was on the bail bond committee and applauded Ogg for involving people with different backgrounds, some with conflicting interests.

“It was a tug of war,” Jackson said of her committee that included a bail bondsman and a representative of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We had deep debate on what the district attorney can do in regard to bail reform, about what’s possible. And the final results were some good policies that she can implement.”

You can see the committee reports here. The themes all came from the campaign, and however you feel about the conclusions, I’d hope we can all respect a process that involved a broad spectrum of stakeholders who worked together across a range of perspectives. The Press read through the reports so you don’t have to.

Among the most noteworthy is the passing mention that Ogg’s administration “will work with all of the Harris County Law Enforcement agencies” to implement cite and release “for appropriate misdemeanor crimes,” which was not mentioned during the press conference. This has been a topic of debate for years, if not a full decade, after the Texas Legislature authorized police in 2007 to issue citations for various small-time crimes rather than arresting people and hauling them to jail. It’d be like getting a traffic ticket, then going to court for it later. It applies to crimes such as driving with an invalid license, criminal mischief, graffiti and possession of less than four ounces of pot (Ogg already diverts most pot cases).

[…]

Also noteworthy are plans to expand mental health diversion. Staci Biggar, a Houston defense attorney who was on Ogg’s mental health transition team panel, said that the idea was to transition people charged with low-level crimes like trespassing, often related to a person’s mental illness, away from jail and into treatment. Rather than asking for money to fund a program, she said judges can still issue pretrial diversion contracts to mentally ill defendants and individualize the terms based on that person’s needs.

“The idea is placing more people on bond and placing them in facilities, making pretrial conditions be to go see a particular health provider, or maybe they need to stay in a particular living situation,” Biggar said. “They can order somebody to see a doctor and they can order somebody to be treated by one organization. If you take a misdemeanor [defendant] and maybe that’s the first or second time they’re arrested, yes, you’ve been arrested, but we’ll drop the charges if you go and do these various things. It shouldn’t be that we wait until you’re really, really in trouble before there’s a stronger intervention for mental health.”

Other noteworthy nuggets from the eight transition team reports include the end to hiking bail to sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for suspected undocumented immigrants; vetting expert witnesses in capital murder cases more extensively and never “expert shopping”; and releasing to the public body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings as long as it does not impede an ongoing investigation — among various recommendations from the officer-involved shooting panel headed by former Houston police chief C.O. Bradford.

As Ogg says, you can judge her by her results in 2020. I think she’s off to a great start.

More medical marijuana requested

This was a pre-Harvey story.

Medical cannabis companies and investors are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety to approve more dispensary licenses beyond the three given provisional approval in May.

In a pair of letters this week, the coalition argues that having just three dispensaries, two in Austin and one in Schulenburg, cannot ensure that patients with intractable epilepsy have easy access to the low THC-chemical strain of the cannabis plant.

The Texas Cannabis Industry Association requested in its letter that a second round of applications be taken for the 40 companies that initially applied for but failed to obtain provisional licenses. The group specifically asks for at least nine additional licenses.

The requested number stems from a recommendation made by DPS’ chief financial officer, who noted in September 2015 that at least 12 dispensaries would need to be licensed to meet the needs of some 150,000 patients with intractable epilepsy in the state.

[…]

In October 2016, DPS officials reduced their recommended number of dispensaries to three.

A DPS memo sent to at least one cannabis company last November stated that the governor’s office had requested the reduction, along with other regulatory changes to the state’s fledgling medical-cannabis program.

The companies and investors who signed the Texas Cannabis Industry letter note that both DPS and the governor’s office “failed to provide a reasoned justification for this arbitrary choice limiting the number of licensees.”

You can see the letter here and some supporting information for it here. This bill was passed in 2015, and we were supposed to have all these dispensaries set up by September 1 of this year. Obviously, there are more important issues to worry about right now, but for those who may have benefited from the passing of this law, this is where it stands now.

The Observer talks to Kim Ogg

A good read:

Kim Ogg

You decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Jeff Sessions has signaled that he seeks to ramp up the war on drugs. What power does the federal government hold over your policy decisions?

I enjoy total discretion under Texas law as to who I charge and with what crime. The federal government has never been able or even really wanted to influence local prosecutors in terms of individual charging decisions. I don’t fear Sessions’ interference, although I think that states — certainly states where marijuana is legal — may face states’ rights battles with the federal government.

What pushback have you faced in Texas?

The lieutenant governor accused me of creating a sanctuary city. I think he’s looking to pick a fight with Houston. It seemed like a partisan attack more than a substantive one. He said Houston would become a drug-user sanctuary, and then I heard the same language being used by [DA] Brett Ligon of Montgomery County. They have the same political consultant, Allen Blakemore.

I think it was posturing simply because I did something that was popular and pragmatic. The program will save about $27 million a year — either save it or redirect it. I think this presents a clear and present threat to the Republican power structure, the fact that local Democratic government in Harris County is moving forward on this reform agenda that has bipartisan support. They’ve got an eye toward the 2018 election cycle.

Will this attack have any impact on Harris County? Or is this all just noise and politics?

Anything is possible, but the evidence will speak for itself. In the first six weeks of the program we’ve diverted 576 people [from jail], and the savings is over $1.5 million. The program will rise and fall based on whether we’re continuing to save lives and money. Of those 576 people that have been diverted so far, I know that none of them have lost their job because of an arrest for a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. I know that none of them have been turned away from a housing opportunity because of the marijuana conviction. So far, so good on both the human and the fiscal front.

There’s more, so go read the rest. One thing to observe, eight months into Ogg’s first term of office, is how tranquil things have been. Kim Ogg has cleaned house, made major changes to how low-level drug cases are handled, has sided with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the county’s bail practices, and inherited a controversial murder case (David Temple) that requires a retry–or-dismiss decision. Yet so far there has been little controversy, and basically no news stories of the “what is going on with the DA’s office” variety. She’s had a lot to do, she’s had a lot that she wanted to do and promised to do, and so far she’s done it with a minimum of fuss. That’s quite an accomplishment.

That said, once the Legislature is out and election season kicks in, the politics of this will get interesting. Ogg is in opposition to Republican judges and County Commissioners on the bail issue, and she opposes the “sanctuary cities” law, which will put her even more in Dan Patrick’s crosshairs. And not to put too fine a point on it, but with Annise Parker in the private sector (modulo a decision on her part to run for County Judge next year), Kim Ogg is now the most high profile gay person holding political office in Texas. That in and of itself would make her a target. Don’t be surprised when – not if – she is prominently featured in some ugly attack ads next year.

Where are the marijuana bills?

There have been no hearings on two bills to expand the usage of medical marijuana in Texas.

[Dr. Robert S.] Marks was among about two dozen advocates for so-called medical marijuana, including health-care professionals and patients, who gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday. They said they are hoping to jump-start momentum for two bills — Senate Bill 269 and House Bill 2107 — that would make the use of marijuana legal as a treatment for any doctor-corroborated debilitating health condition, such as cancer, chronic pain, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The companion bills, filed more than two months ago, have languished in committees without being granted hearings as the clock ticks down on the current session of the state Legislature. SB 269 is in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, while HB 2107 is in the House Public Health Committee, chaired by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo.

“Chairman Price, Chairman Schwertner, please schedule a hearing,” Keith Crook, a New Braunfels resident and military veteran, said during the event Tuesday. “Please take this first positive step to save lives.”

Crook and other participants said they have tried to contact Price and Schwertner but haven’t received responses. Neither Price nor Schwertner responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

Two years ago, Texas lawmakers approved what’s known as the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing oils made from cannabidiol for medical purposes. Cannabidiol, commonly called CBD, is found in marijuana plants but doesn’t produce euphoria or a high.

However, that law, which has yet to have any impact because the first Texas CBD dispensaries won’t be licensed until this summer, restricts the compound’s use only to certain patients suffering from a rare form of epilepsy, and only after they’ve first tried two conventional drugs that prove to be ineffective.

Advocates for medical marijuana said Tuesday that the Compassionate Use Act is so restrictive it’s useless for most people. They also said increased availability of medical marijuana is essential for Texans suffering from chronic pain and other debilitating health conditions, illustrating the point with their own wrenching personal stories and those of family members and friends.

Medical marijuana “is a life saver,” said Crook, who volunteers to help fellow veterans. “It is stopping people from putting guns in their mouths and pulling the triggers.”

See here for more on the 2015 Compassionate Use Act, which we knew at the time was a very limited step forward. There’s an increasing level of public support for marijuana use, but as yet that has not translated into legislation of any significance. There’s been one bill to reduce pot penalties that has been passed out of a House committee, and as the story notes another bill that would allow people to cite a doctor’s recommendation as “an affirmative defense” against prosecution that has had a hearing, but that’s it so far. Maybe these two bills will get hearings in due time, but that time is running short, and the deadline for bills to be passed out of committee will be upon us before you know it. I don’t really know why the Lege is so reluctant to engage on this issue.

Marijuana decriminalization bill passes House committee

Progress.

Rep. Joe Moody

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee advanced a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday with the help of two Republicans.

With a 4–2 vote, the committee approved House Bill 81, authored by Chair Joe Moody, D-El Paso, at Monday’s hearing. Under HB 81, police would ticket someone caught with an ounce or less of marijuana rather than charging them with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail.

The measure passed with bipartisan support, but both no votes came from Republican freshmen — Cole Hefner, of Mt. Pleasant, and Mike Lang, of Granbury. Republicans Todd Hunter, of Corpus Christi, and Terry Wilson, of Marble Falls, joined the committee’s Democrats in advancing the bill beyond its first legislative hurdle.

“It is a fairly new concept in Texas not to criminalize conduct,” Moody told the Observer. “Part of the problem has been just getting people comfortable with the idea of treating this differently than we have in the past.”

[…]

Last session, Moody carried a nearly identical measure. Several Republicans, including David Simpson and Bryan Hughes — both of whom are no longer in the House — signed on to Moody’s bill as co-authors in 2013, but no GOP member supported the measure as a joint author, which is a greater show of support.

Moody will need all the help he can get from Republicans, including House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Vice Chair Hunter, who voted in support of the bill on Monday. The proposal now advances to the Calendars Committee, which determines the flow of legislation into the full House. Hunter chairs the powerful committee, which comprises 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

Hunter will play a major role in determining whether HB 81 makes it to the House floor — further than any bill lessening penalties for marijuana offenses has made it in the legislative process.

I feel like this bill will have a decent chance to pass the House – it should at least get a vote, unless it becomes clear the numbers aren’t there for it. The prospects seem longer in the Senate, but at least now-Senator Bryan Hughes ought to support it. Even if it doesn’t go the distance, each step farther improves the odds that something like it can get passed in a future session. Public support is ahead of the Lege on this issue, and it will likely take a few more cycles to catch up.