One day, you’re trying to pass the Texas Hemp Farming Act to regulate the commercial production of hemp. The next day, local authorities are saying you’ve essentially decriminalized marijuana.
It’s enough to make an elected official pour a stiff drink.
The quick version, reported last week by the Tribune’s Jolie McCullough, is that legislation opening the legal doors for hemp farming makes it much more difficult to prosecute people caught with small amounts of marijuana; attorneys say it would require laboratory testing to tell legal hemp from illegal pot. They come from the same plant. Hemp, a plant once known for making rope now used in a variety of commercial products, has become a major cash crop. The difference is in the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces marijuana’s buzz. If it’s got 0.3% or more of that THC, it’s marijuana; less, it’s hemp.
And McCullough found a twist: Most of the state’s crime labs, including those run by state police, can’t measure the amount of THC.
Which, in turn, has most of the big-city prosecutors in Texas dropping small marijuana cases. If it’s not pot, it’s not a crime, and if you can’t prove it’s pot, there is a reasonable doubt.
It might not surprise you to hear that this doesn’t sit well with some of the state’s leaders. They say the lab reports aren’t needed, that the prosecutors should proceed with their marijuana cases, and that, heaven forfend, the state government did not, did not, did not decriminalize the drug.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have co-signed a letter to the state’s district and county attorneys, saying their interpretation is that the hemp law doesn’t do what the prosecutors think it does. “Failing to enforce marijuana laws cannot be blamed on legislation that did not decriminalize marijuana in Texas,” they wrote.
For one thing, people transporting hemp are supposed to be carrying certificates authorizing them to do so.
The letter even took a swipe at federal officials: “If the Legislature had not adopted the federal differentiation of hemp from marijuana and set its own regulatory course, Texas would be beholden to Washington’s determination of what is best for Texans.”
Austin has a bit of the same disease state leaders have diagnosed Washington with. A few months after every session of the Texas Legislature, the people in state government start finding out the distance between what they actually did and what they thought they were doing.
Maybe they just didn’t do their homework. For instance, a report from the House Research Organization, which examines legislation before the House votes and writes it up in easily digestible form to help lawmakers understand what they’re voting on, had an analysis of House Bill 1325, the hemp bill. It included, in a section on objections from opponents of the legislation: “Under the bill, edible items with a maximum THC concentration of 0.3 percent would be legal, which could increase the amount of testing the DPS crime lab would undertake incidental to investigating crimes.”
How about that?
On another front, this year’s Legislature took a serious swing at lowering the penalties for possession of smaller amounts of marijuana — essentially turning a crime that now can put someone in jail into one that results in something more like a traffic ticket. That decriminalization legislation, House Bill 63, sailed through the Texas House on a 103-42 vote. But the lieutenant governor said he was against it and didn’t move it forward for Senate consideration.
But the way some of the prosecutors read the hemp bill, possession of small amounts won’t result in jail or a ticket. Or anything worse than confiscation of the suspicious herbs.
The Austin brass noted in their letter to prosecutors that the cost of the tests will decline. And forensic scientists are proposing faster, cheaper ways to test suspected marijuana that could resolve at least some of this problem. In the letter, they contended that the change in law “did not limit the prosecutorial options for prosecuting marijuana cases.”
Their argument included a simple statement that, as it turns out, nobody disagrees with: “This regulation of hemp did not abolish or reduce punishment for the possession of marijuana, which remains illegal under state law.”
It’s illegal. But according to the folks who have to prosecute these cases, the state installed a huge practical obstacle to enforcement.
The scientists think they’ve come up with a solution to Texas’ pot problem.
Forensic and crime lab experts are optimistic state and local officials will support a new proposal that would allow for a faster, cheaper way to test suspected marijuana under the state’s new definition of the drug.
But even if law enforcement and crime labs agree to move forward with the proposal, it would still be months before labs could start testing cases for prosecutors. And there are still some looming questions — like who would pay for the additional crime lab resources?
Last month, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill to legalize hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil, the legal definition of marijuana changed from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Cannabis below that level is now legal hemp.
The sudden change created chaos for Texas prosecutors handling marijuana charges under the new law. Most district attorneys in the state’s 10 most populous counties, including both Democrats and Republicans, have said testing THC levels is now required to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, since a defendant’s claim that a substance is hemp would cast too much reasonable doubt over criminal proceedings without it. The problem is the public labs in Texas don’t have equipment or a process to quantify THC concentration.
Numerous district attorneys have dropped cases and refused to accept new charges without further testing. Others have paused cases while they figure out how to proceed, and some have said they will continue to prosecute marijuana cases, with at least one saying test results aren’t usually needed.
In a letter Thursday, Abbott and other state leaders argued that cases could still be handled with the “tried-and-true” use of circumstantial evidence. Top prosecutors and lab experts have argued against this, saying things like the smell of marijuana are no longer credible evidence since hemp and marijuana come from the same plant.
Initially, crime labs said testing equipment would cost up to $500,000 per machine. One lab director estimated more than 20 labs would need the equipment to cover the state caseload. And even after they got those machines, the labs would have needed to go through an accreditation process that could take a year or more before they could test samples for law enforcement.
Now, after meeting last week with officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which worked to distinguish hemp from marijuana when the U.S. farm bill legalized hemp in 2018 on the federal level, the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s general counsel said local officials are looking to use the same approach.
“For six months, [the DEA] figured out what they needed to do in order to provide the best, most taxpayer-efficient, economical way of distinguishing between hemp and marijuana,” Lynn Garcia told The Texas Tribune.
The federal agency’s approach is to do an initial series of tests that indicate if a substance has above or below a 1% THC concentration. Although the method looks for a concentration that is slightly higher than the legal cutoff, Garcia said the test will likely satisfy most law enforcement needs, adding that nearly all marijuana prosecutions involve THC concentrations of 12% or higher. Things like vape pen oil rise far beyond that.
The most appealing part of this plan: Texas labs already have the equipment needed to perform these tests, cutting expected costs and implementation time.
“It’s able to give law enforcement what they need to make decisions at the front end using a much less expensive process than I think what our labs were thinking they were going to have to do,” Garcia said.
But the price tag and wait time wouldn’t drop to zero. Adding a large new caseload of suspected marijuana samples to already backlogged crime labs would still create a need for more employees and equipment, said Peter Stout, president of the Houston Forensic Science Center, which manages the city’s crime lab.
“The challenge that we’re going to have is we’re talking tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of tests across the state,” he said. “We probably don’t have enough equipment.”
Garcia said the machines in place now would also likely need to be replaced more often with this type of testing. Still, she expects a need for fewer new instruments at the onset, and these machines cost significantly less — about $75,000 each.
The tests the DEA uses would also take much less time, about an hour as opposed to two days, putting less of an additional strain on the crime labs, Garcia said.
A spokesperson for the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association, which alerted prosecutors last month that pursuing marijuana cases had suddenly become more difficult, said the approach would be a viable solution to the problems caused by the new legislation.
But Stout said it will probably still take a couple of weeks before a final plan of action is agreed upon among stakeholders, including law enforcement and forensic experts. And although it seems likely the labs would be able to bypass any accreditation process using the proposed method since they already use this equipment for other tests, they would still need to validate the DEA’s methods. The plan would be for The Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs 13 state crime labs, and local labs to work with Sam Houston State University to ensure the DEA testing works in Texas.
“I have to be able to demonstrate it’s going to do what I think it’s going to do before we start doing casework,” Stout said.
Both Stout and Sarah Kerrigan, chair of the forensic science department at Sam Houston State University, said that process will still take months. Meanwhile, many Texas counties will hold marijuana cases in limbo or refuse to accept them.
Still, it’s a step in the right direction, they say.
“The solution is much more readily available,” Kerrigan said. “It’s still going to take some time, but it’s not going to be as logistically complex.”
Despite the apparent agreement among experts on a plan of action, one lingering question remains unanswered: Who is going to pay for the crime labs’ costs of the new legislation? The hemp bill was passed without any dedicated funds attached to it.
Over the next two years, the Legislature will funnel about $50 million into the DPS crime labs to help with chronic backlogs, but a spokesperson for the Houston Forensic Science Center said that money is because DPS is already crushed — this testing will require new resources. Garcia said she hopes DPS will get them. DPS officials did not respond to questions for this story.
“A lot of the labs are already struggling,” said Kerrigan. “Controlled substances is already the most backlogged discipline, so they don’t always have the human resources to get something done.”
Abbott did not respond to repeated requests for comment about funding for new testing under the law, though his letter to prosecutors noted that testing costs would be much less than originally expected.
Disclosure: Sam Houston State University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Even as the Senate stonewalls a handful of bills aimed at lessening criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, an upper chamber committee on Friday advanced legislation that aims to vastly expand who has access to medical cannabis in the state.
The bill requires approval by the full Senate chamber before it can return to the Texas House, where lawmakers have already approved two bills to drastically expand the Compassionate Use Program, which currently only allows the sale of cannabis oil to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements. But according to the Senate sponsor of the bill, the legislation is likely to pass the upper chamber — despite leadership once expressing aversion to relaxing the existing state program.
Several who testified before the Senate committee pleaded with the panel to advance the bill, sharing personal stories of how using cannabis oil has helped them treat a bevy of medical ailments. Lawmakers from both parties were receptive to the emotional testimony and, after more than an hour of discussion, voted unanimously to send the legislation to the full Senate.
When laying out the bill in front of the Senate committee Friday, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, introduced a reworked version of the measure which further expanded which Texans have access to the medicine. In addition to the conditions already outlined by Klick, those with other illnesses like seizure disorders, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, terminal cancer and autism would also be eligible to obtain the medicine. The version of the bill Campbell laid out also eliminated what she called an “onerous requirement” that those wanting access to the medicine get the approval of two licensed neurologists.
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.
“For many patients in the [Compassionate Use Program], participation in the program has been life altering,” Campbell said. “These people are our friends, our family, our neighbors. Members of our churches and in our communities have benefitted from this.”
Multiple Texans who either currently use the medicine, or felt they could benefit from access to it, spoke before the Senate committee.
“Before CBD, I had 200 seizures a day lasting 15 to 30 seconds,” said Brenham resident Julia Patterson. “It affected my grades and my social life. I couldn’t play sports. I couldn’t go to sleepovers. … After CBD oil, I’m now one year seizure free. I have my driver’s license and I’m finishing the school year with A’s.”
Still, there was a small show of opposition from a handful of parents and veterans who said they wished the legislation was more broad and included conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who filed a medical expansion bill this legislative session that never got hearing, raised questions about the potential shortfalls of Klick’s bill.
“What happens if the Legislature does not address PTSD in this bill? What do you think is going to be the impact?” Menéndez asked Keith Crook, a retired Air Force veteran who testified on the bill.
“I’m going to bury more of my friends because this medicine saved my life,” Crook responded. “And there are people who don’t have the ability to access it or will be refused access to it because of a law.
“I’m a criminal. I use everyday. But I’m just trying to stay alive and do the right thing.”
Nearing the end of the testimony, Campbell implied that it would take more than one legislative session before Texas further expanded the number of conditions who qualify for the medicine in order to prevent “unintended consequences.”
“Anybody who watches a football game is going to root for their team and be happy when they at least get a first down,” Campbell said. “We would like to be able to include so many more diagnoses. This is more certainly a more expanded list and we will keep working with this.”
The bill still faces several more hurdles before it can be signed into law. The bill will need approval from the full Senate and then the House will have to accept the Senate’s changes — or both chambers will need to reconcile their differences on the bill’s language in conference committee.
Its chances of passage look sunny in the upper chamber, however, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrickpreviously said he was “wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.” During Friday’s hearing, Campbell said Patrick “helped craft” the reworked version of the legislation. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen also told Spectrum News this week he thinks the Senate will take concepts from both medical cannabis bills passed by the House earlier — one from Klick and the other from Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville — and “put them into one.”
Expanding the Compassionate Use Act has drawn the support of some politically powerful players since the last legislative session. In March, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana, Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, emerged and has players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.
The Republican Party of Texas also approved a plank last year asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.”
The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.
Less than 24 hours after the Texas House gave preliminary approval to a bill reducing the criminal penalties for Texans found to possess small amounts of marijuana, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.
House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would lower possession of 1 ounce or less from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, which is the same classification as a traffic ticket. 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.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, never gave Moody’s companion bill in the Senate a public hearing and previously told The Texas Observer he didn’t see an appetite for marijuana reform in the upper chamber.
In a tweet Tuesday, Patrick confirmed that to be the case.
“Criminal Justice Chair @Whitmire_John is right that #HB 63 is dead in the @TexasSenate,” Patrick tweeted Tuesday morning. “I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana.”
Patrick has spoken against bills to relax the state’s marijuana laws in the past. In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, his spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”
To make his bill more palatable to Gov. Greg Abbott — who previously opened the door to reducing the penalty for low-level possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor — Moody on Monday introduced a watered-down version of his original bill.
As originally proposed by Moody, HB 63 would have replaced the criminal penalties for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana and replaced it with a civil fine of up to $250. Only those fined more than three times would face misdemeanor criminal charges.
On the House floor Tuesday, just after the lower chamber gave final approval to his bill in a 103-42 vote, Moody said that Patrick was “the odd man out” and that “the ball is in his court.”
“Whatever you think about Colorado-style legalization, this isn’t it. It isn’t even a step toward it,” Moody told his colleagues on the House floor. “Mr. Patrick has been tweeting about this bill instead of giving us the courtesy of talking to us here in the House. … Let’s vote this across the hall so they can get to work on the House’s priorities, and so we can see how those priorities are respected as we consider Senate bills over here over the next few weeks.”
Despite Patrick’s comment, some advocates for marijuana reform said they still hoped to push the bill forward.
“Working through the legislative process means overcoming objection that some folks may have and working with them to find common ground,” said Heather Fazio, the director for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “That’s exactly what we did in the House yesterday and what the vote yesterday demonstrates … and we intend to bring that spirit to the Texas Senate.”
The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.
Joshua Raines worried about going to his son’s choir concert in December — not because of his son, but because he himself would be sitting among throngs of people, which was sure to raise his anxieties.
Ultimately, he decided to go. But it wasn’t long before the Army veteran’s hand began shaking — a seizure warning sign. He smoked a cigarette outside, but quickly realized that wasn’t the comfort he sought.
So he left the concert early, returned to his Parker County home and turned on his cannabis vape pen.
Raines said he only uses his pen when his tremors become debilitating or when he needs to calm his anxieties. Sometimes he can go days without it, but at his peak, he was using his pen “all day.”
“I try to use as little of it as possible because, you know, it’s illegal,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to know me for that. They know that I’m fighting to make it legal, but at the same time they know me as the soldier daddy. I fought for the laws, I didn’t break the laws”.
“I don’t do this for fun. I don’t do this for a party,” he added. “I legitimately treat this as a medication.”
Under state law, it’s illegal for Raines to use his pen — which contains fast-acting drops of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, and CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana. But some Texas lawmakers are proposing changing that during the legislative session that begins Tuesday, and Raines is pinning his hopes that by the time the Legislature adjourns in May it will have made his medical regimen legal in the state.
Some advocates say Raines has reason to be optimistic, in large part because of what happened in the Texas Capitol four years earlier.
A rocky start
State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, was on the floor of the Texas House on May 18, 2015 hoping to succeed where many before her had failed. The former nurse was trying to convince the conservative Texas House to open up the state to medical cannabis in the most narrow way possible.
“It is also not something you can get high on. It has a low risk of abuse,” Klick told her colleagues during the floor debate. “This is not something that can be smoked. It is ingested orally.”
Fellow Republicans expressed concerns that increased access to any component of marijuana would jeopardize public safety and lead to full-blown legalization — a sentiment still echoed by many today. At one point during the debate, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, yelled, “This is a bad bill.”
During the signing, Abbott said he’s “convinced that Texas should not legalize marijuana, nor should Texas open the door for conventional marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes.
“As governor, I will not allow it.”
Klick’s bill legalized products containing high levels of CBD and low levels of THC 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.
Roughly 160,000 Texans have intractable epilepsy — less than one percent of the state’s total population.
Only 576 people in the Compassionate Use Registry have been issued a prescription as of Dec. 17, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Yet with the dispensaries now in place, advocates argue, tens of thousands of others stand to benefit from the product those facilities are now legally producing.
“Every state surrounding Texas has passed legislation allowing patients safe and legal access to cannabis,” Heather Fazio, the director for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said. “There’s something wrong with us not having the same freedom that those in surrounding states have.”
But the Sheriff’s Association of Texas opposes any further legalization of marijuana. Many law enforcement officials deal with the social costs of the drug, said Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback, who is also legislative director of the association.
“It’s not good and healthy for Texans — or Americans for that matter,” he said.
Louderback was also quick to note that any bills aimed at loosening the state’s restrictions on marijuana will face intense political scrutiny from lawmakers in a largely conservative state.
“The way to open the door to legalization is through medical marijuana,” he said. “Our state leaders are very aware of where we have stood for years on marijuana use and the legalization of marijuana — which we think is the end game on all of these processes that are taking place.”
Ahead of 2019, state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, filed a measure that would expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for medical cannabis under the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to include illnesses such as terminal cancer, autism, Crohn’s disease and — to Raines’ delight — PTSD.
The bill would allow doctors to treat medical cannabis like any other medicine and also remove the 0.5 percent cap on the amount of the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC that medical cannabis products sold under the Compassionate Use Act are legally allowed to contain.
Menéndez said that under his bill, “we’ll leave it up to the doctor to decide which patients need that particular medication and which ones don’t.”
“It doesn’t make sense that politicians are picking winners and losers among patients.”
Meanwhile, Texans like Raines who currently don’t qualify say they’re in a no-win situation: Either theyuse cannabis and risk getting caught — to avoid that, Raines said he usually smokes at home as long as his kids aren’t around —or take prescription medication that often comes with unpleasant side-effects.
Raines left the Army in 2011 after back-to-back tours — the first in Iraq and the next in Afghanistan where he said he got “blown up quite a bit.” But he left the military with more than a Purple Heart. Since coming home, he’s endured seizures, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors put him on nearly a dozen different opioids to offset his pain, but Raines said they made him “a real asshole” or “like a zombie.” At one point, he remembers telling his wife to divorce him.
“I just wasn’t a good dad or a good husband,” he said.
Raines had reached his breaking point when he found two activities — using his cannabis pen and exercising — that, together, drastically improved his quality of life. Now he spends most of his days at home, where he’s able to work at as a motion graphics artist.
Dawn Brooks is another Texan who found herself at a similar crossroads after a series of surgeries starting in 2011.
“I was a mess,” she said, laughing at the memory. “It was a real tough time.”
The now 67-year-old from Pflugerville underwent four surgeries in a five-year period — first her right knee, then her left hip, then her left knee and finally her shoulder. She tried the opioids that doctors prescribed for her but they made her feel like she was “in a fog.” That’s when she turned to marijuana.
“As a senior, we can’t stop the aging process, but we can help improve our quality of life,” Brooks said.
Under Menéndez’s bill, Brooks would qualify for the medicine if her doctor determined that she had severe debilitating pain.
“We’ve already made a policy decision that this can help people with intractable epilepsy, so why stop there?” Menéndez said. “Why do we not let a doctor help the patient with cancer? Or the patient with Parkinson’s? Or the veteran with PTSD?”
Patrick Tidalgo, the general manager for Knox Medical in Schulenburg, one of Texas’ three licensed dispensaries, said his business hasn’t run into any problems with the DPS since it made its first delivery of cannabis oil to a young child in February — one of the many reasons he’s in favor of an expansion bill passing in 2019.
“We believe its patients’ rights that they decide what they put in their body. CBD is non-euphoric so there’s very little to no chance of abuse,” Tidalgo said. “Here’s a plant, a natural drug, that can help treat medical conditions that humans experience. Why not expand that and give more people access to it?”
“Unfortunately, it’s politics at play.”
Texas is one of several states where marijuana is still illegal, and the state remains reluctant to move forward on legislation that would legalize its recreational use. More than 30 states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of 13 states that only allow for “low THC, high CBD” products for medical situations in limited circumstances.
According to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 31 percent of the state’s registered voters would legalize marijuana for only medical purposes. Only 16 percent said possession of marijuana should remain illegal under any circumstances.
“People are seeing that this issue is about people. It’s not about politics,” Fazio said. “Texans with debilitating illnesses are deprived access and we’d like to see that change.”
Unsuccessful bills in 2017 included one to replace criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250 and another that would’ve created a specialty court for certain first-time marijuana possession offenders.
State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who has been filing failed marijuana measures in the Texas House since 2003, said one of the reasons these bills never became law is because lawmakers “don’t want to appear soft on crime.”
“In consequence,” he said, “they don’t do what they know they should. Texas needs to finally get the message that we’re destroying too many young people’s lives having these antiquated laws on marijuana.”
Menéndez filed a similar medical cannabis bill during the 2017 session but it never received a hearing from the Senate Health & Human Services Committee. His companion bill in the House, authored by Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville, attracted nearly 80 co-sponsors — including some of the chambers more hardline conservatives — but was never scheduled for a floor vote.
“Unfortunately it’s politics at play and the bill got a hearing late,” said outgoing Republican state Rep. Jason Isaac, one of the co-authors of Menéndez’s companion bill. “I don’t even know that it would’ve made it to the governor.”
Looking ahead, whether any expansion bill moves forward is likely to come down to three men: the governor, lieutenant governor and state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the presumptive next House speaker — most of whom have not been vocal on a medical cannabis expansion measure since the dispensaries have opened.
At a gubernatorial debate in September, Abbott said that after speaking with the parents of children with autism and veterans and about the possible benefits of medical cannabis, he would consider an expansion bill. However, he said he’s seen the medicine get abused in states where it’s already legal, so he’s “still not convinced yet.”
Neither Abbott nor Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick returned requests for comment.
Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, didn’t co-sponsor the expansion bill in 2017 nor did he sign onto the 2015 Compassionate Use Act. Through a spokesperson, he declined to comment on whether he’d support an expansion bill this session. His office said he wouldn’t weigh in on what issues he’d tackle until the 150-member body votes him in as Joe Straus’ successor next week.
A legislative appetite and renewed support
Though marijuana bills haven’t made a splash in sessions past, shifting politics and public opinion is giving lawmakers and advocates reason to believe the 2019 session might be different.
So far Texas legislators have filed more than a dozen cannabis-related measures, including one to eliminate criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of all the drug and another allowing farmers to grow and sell hemp as long as they’re in compliance with federal law — which was recently signed into law by President Donald Trump. More pro-marijuana bills are expected to get filed in the coming weeks.
“There is definitely renewed momentum. I do think there’s an appetite for this,” Isaac said. “It’s costing our law enforcement and our courts on the criminal justice side, but its also costing folks on the medicinal side when you know that you have constituents treating their children with THC nasal spray. Do we really want to treat those parents as criminals?”
And Klick, who authored the 2015 Compassionate Use Act, is also in favor of an expansion measure. While she didn’t sign onto Lucio and Isaac’s bill in 2017, she’s now changing course. The Fort Worth Republican said she plans to file her own bill — one narrower in scope than Menéndez’s — that would give Texans with multiple sclerosis and a short list of other conditions access to the medicine.
“In the interim there’s been more data that has come out which is why I would support some of the other conditions being added,” Klick said. “The opinions on this medicine have changed. There are clearly individuals that have benefited from it.”
Individuals, Raines said, like him. And though he’s cautiously optimistic, the Army veteran is hopeful lawmakers this year will finally pass legislation to give him some relief.
“I’m a paranoid person because of the war and my anxieties now kind of add to it when I’m in public, so I’m stuck here,” Raines said. “If this bill passes, I could actually go out in public with my kids and family. It would allow me to be a member of society again. I don’t want to have to hide.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
AUSTIN, Texas – While a number of states approved new laws legalizing marijuana this week, many Texans are asking when the state might change its ban on cannabis use. While voters in states like California, Massachusetts and Maine can change their laws through the ballot box, advocates for legalizing marijuana say the process is more complicated in Texas.
Jax Finkel, executive director of the Texas chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said despite growing public support for such laws, there are major hurdles to overcome in the Lone Star State.
“In Texas, we do not have a ballot initiative to change our drug laws; we have to do it through the Legislature,” she said. “They meet every two years for 140 days, and that’s our opportunity to get bills submitted, passed through the process and turned into law.”
Finkel said she’s seeing some changes in the hardline opposition to legalization in Texas. In 2015, lawmakers approved the use of low-THC cannabis for certain types of epilepsy. However, statewide law-enforcement associations remain firmly opposed to legalization. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature convenes in January.
Finkel said polling shows increasing public support for changing the state’s drug laws.
“The last poll that we did, we saw overwhelming support for a change to civil penalties, and we have seen as many as 47 percent of Texans polled showing that they support adult retail use,” she added.
She said legalization is a major issue for Texas veterans. Many say cannabis is often better at relieving the symptoms of PTSD and other battle wounds than prescription drugs, and are concerned that using it makes them criminals.
“The cost of $10,000 per arrest and we’re arresting 70,000 Texans a year, that’s extremely high,” Finkel said. “Law enforcement needs to be able to focus on crime that has a real victim, and not something that is possession of a plant.”
Texas NORML’s veterans outreach group holds a Veterans’ Day rally today at the Texas State Capitol. Finkel said they’ll deliver pill bottles with toy soldiers in them to each legislator.