Texas may be the next to decriminalize marijuana

Is Texas Next? Marijuana Decriminalization Advances (Again)

The full Texas House of Representatives approved a marijuana decriminalization bill in 2019, but it died in the Senate. That’s why observers are closely watching marijuana’s prospects this time around. And advocates got good news last week, as a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in the Lone Star State—as well as a separate proposal to reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates—advanced out of a key House committee Friday.

These latest developments come after a week where Texas lawmakers considered a medley of marijuana reform measures. Arguably the most significant piece of cannabis legislation to move out of committee would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine but no threat of jail time.

Unlike in 2019, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved the decriminalization bill, which would also prevent law enforcement from making arrests over low-level possession. Other decriminalization proposals under consideration by the panel would not prohibit enforcement action, which is key because police are currently able to incarcerate people arrested for class C misdemeanors, even though the charge itself does not carry the risk of jail time in sentencing.

The advancing marijuana legislation, HB 441, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Erin Zwiener, would also prevent the loss of a driver’s license or the creation of a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce.

Separately, the committee advanced legislation to make possession of up to two ounces of marijuana concentrates a class B misdemeanor.

Both bills were among the subjects a lengthy hearing the panel held Tuesday.

“Marijuana bills are moving through the committee process at record speed this session,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said. “There’s good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming votes and the House and advocates will be doubling down their efforts to influence senators.”

This action comes one day after the House Public Health Committee unanimously approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

Sponsored by Republican Chairwoman Stephanie Klick, the bill 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.

It would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rule-making. It would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5% to 5%.

On Thursday, the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee also discussed legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

While the Texas legislature has historically resisted most marijuana reforms, there are signs this session may be different.

Republican state House Speaker Dade Phelan 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

Rep. Dade Phelan

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% 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 pre-filed 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, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, 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.

This piece is a part of a content sharing arrangement between The News Station and Marijuana Moment.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE, etc.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE, etc.

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