Cannabis reform is the hot topic in the Texas legislature this week, with lawmakers holding hearings on multiple marijuana decriminalization bills, a proposal to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and another piece of legislation concerning hemp regulations.
The bills were separately scheduled for discussion in three House committees throughout the week, raising hopes for advocates that lawmakers may still advance cannabis reform this year despite setbacks from the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s ice storm.
Five of the proposals that were heard in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday would decriminalize possession of various amounts of marijuana by making it a class C misdemeanor, which does not carry the threat of jail time. The possession thresholds range from one to four ounces.
Two bills—HB 99 and HB 441—would further prevent arrests over cannabis possession, which is an important component as Texas police officers are allowed to place people in jail following arrests for low-level misdemeanors even if the charge itself doesn’t include an incarceration penalty.
Only HB 441 would additionally prevent the marijuana offenses from being added to a person’s criminal record.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee didn’t vote on any of the proposals, but members discussed them at length, with the hearing not wrapping up until Wednesday morning.
A separate bill from Rep. Terry Canales (D) would low penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates, making it a class B misdemeanor to have up to ten grams of those products or a class A misdemeanor if the amount is more than 10 grams but less than 20.
Finally, another measure would simply remove penalties for possessing drug paraphernalia.
“Bipartisan support for marijuana law reform continues to grow as Texas voters see other states reaping the benefits of a more sensible approach,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said in a press release. “Fewer arrests for marijuana possession means law enforcement can focus on real crime in our state.”
Meanwhile, the House Public Health Committee met on Wednesday and discussed a bill from Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R) that would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (for veterans only) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program.
The legislation would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.
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Over in the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee, another bill is set to be taken up on Thursday that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.
The legislative session in Texas ends on May 31, giving lawmakers just weeks to move any piece of legislation through committee and onto the floors of each chamber. But advocates have been working diligently to ensure that the issue isn’t ignored, regardless of unrelated challenges the state is facing.
And while the legislature has historically resisted cannabis reform, there are signs that this session may be different.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”
The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”
Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.
“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”
Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.
Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.
Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.
Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.
Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.
That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber. After the House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, he was was quick to declare the proposal dead in the Senate.