61 percent of Texans believe that adults should be allowed to possess small amounts of cannabis for personal use. That’s according to results from a Quinnipiac University poll released in 2018. Despite public approval, legislators in the conservative, law and order state are reticent to even consider legalizing adult-use cannabis.
Texas lawmakers are more open to medical marijuana. Low-THC cannabis is available for medical use, but the state’s medical-marijuana program is one of the strictest in the country. Until 2019, medical marijuana was only accessible to patients with intractable epilepsy. Even today, medical marijuana cannot contain more than .5 percent THC.
Even though Texas continues to have some of the most draconian cannabis laws on the books (possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis is punishable by 180 days jail time and $2,000), the Lone Star’s approach to cannabis in 2019 signals that a change is coming. Just very, very slowly.
The House Approves Cannabis Decriminalization Efforts
In April 2019, the House passed HB 63, legislation that would have reduced penalties imposed for possession of small amounts of marijuana and paraphernalia. The bill categorized possession of 5 pounds or less of cannabis as a misdemeanor punishable by a range of fines based on quantity. It would have also created an avenue for the expungement of certain cannabis possession-related criminal records.
Despite its passage in the House, the bill was never heard in the Senate due to strong opposition by Senate President Dan Patrick (D). However, the passage in the House is a historic indicator that bipartisan attitudes toward cannabis are becoming more positive.
Hemp is Legalized
In June, Gov. Gregg Abbot signed HB 1325 into law, legalizing the production and regulation of hemp, the non-psychoactive variety of Cannabis sativa. The law represents a significant step toward cannabis legalization in that its existence acknowledges the fiscal benefits of a regulated cannabis industry. In addition to authorizing the existence of a legal hemp industry (and consequently massive economic growth), the law also allows consumers to access CBD products, a huge victory for public health.
According to the law:
- Texas farmers are authorized to grow hemp in compliance with the law’s stipulations
- The Texas Department of Health and Human Services will regulate consumable hemp products
- Products containing hemp-derived CBD will be legal for use and possession, as long as they are sold and purchased in compliance with the law
- Stores selling CBD products must register with the Texas Department of State Health Services
- Hemp products including CBD extracts must be tested and labeled in compliance with the law prior to sale
Once regulations are finalized, farmers will be able to grow industrial hemp. This will likely begin in 2020.
Medical Marijuana Becomes More Accessible
Also in June, Abbot signed HB 3703 into law, authorizing the expansion of Texas’ low-THC cannabis program for medical patients. The previous version of the law only authorized the prescription of low-THC cannabis to patients with intractable epilepsy. Now patients with one of the following debilitating medical conditions may be prescribed (by a licensed physician specializing in the illness) low-THC medicine:
- A seizure disorder
- Multiple sclerosis
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
- Terminal cancer
- An incurable neurodegenerative disease
Although the introduced version of HB 3703 increased the THC cap from .5 percent to 1 percent, that version was rejected. Medical cannabis in Texas cannot contain more than .5 percent THC. According to a Marijuana Policy Project statement, “the low-THC cap is the single biggest barrier for patient relief in Texas’ medical marijuana program.”
Arrests for Small Possession Amounts are Discouraged
A significant impact of the hemp law is the way it has altered Texas law enforcement’s approach to misdemeanor level possession offenses. Industrial hemp and high-THC cannabis is indistinguishable without a lab test. This complicates the efforts of law enforcement to arrest people for unlawful cannabis possession. In response to this confusion, some local prosecutors began to refuse cannabis possession cases in order to focus their efforts on more serious crimes.
In July, an interoffice memo obtained by the Texas Tribune instructed Texas Department of Public Safety officers to issue citations rather than make arrests to people who have been found with less than four ounces of cannabis. When and if those citations become convictions, the results still include 6 months of jail time and thousands of dollars in fines.
In a statement, the Department of Public Safety explained that the memo was sent to provide clarity in a legally confusing situation:
“This internal memo was necessary in order to address reports that local prosecutors were interpreting the new statute differently, which was impacting the level of enforcement action law enforcement could take. Even in jurisdictions where the local prosecutor will not accept marihuana cases without a quantitative lab report, DPS will continue to enforce the law through available statutory means, including cite and release as an alternative to putting people in jail.”
Since the legalization of hemp, thousands of low-level cannabis cases have been dropped. According to the Texas Office of Court Administration, Texas prosecutors were filing almost 6,000 new misdemeanor cannabis possession cases each month in 2018. After the hemp law was enacted, that number began to rapidly decline. In November 2019, less than 2,000 new misdemeanor cannabis possession cases were filed.
Governor Pardons Texans with Marijuana Convictions
In December, Gov. Abbott issued multiple pardons to Texans convicted of cannabis-related crimes including:
- Todd Robert Jarzynkowski, sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $500 for possession of over 4 ounces but less than 5 pounds
- Jeffrey Leighton Maddox, sentenced to 18 months in jail for possession
- Matthew Thomas Lours Donohew, sentenced to 3 days and fined $500 for possession
A pardon from the state restores rights and removes certain barriers to employment, obtaining a home, continuing education, and securing a loan.
The strides made toward cannabis legalization are largely due to the efforts of organizations like Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. As in every state, cannabis legalization is the result of the advocacy of regular people who recognize the injustice and public health threat cannabis prohibition forces their state to contend with.