- By Bob Sechler American-Statesman Staff
Marijuana has become easy to find at the Texas Capitol — at least in terms of references to the drug.
More than a dozen bills are pending in the Texas Legislature this session, aimed at lifting prohibitions on Texans who want to use marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.
But it remains to be seen if the legislative effort will result in increased availability of medical cannabis in Texas or decriminalization of all pot for low-volume possession – or if it helps establish a legal, potentially billion-dollar-plus cultivation and processing industry in the state.
Broad legalization for medical purposes, let alone adult recreational use, must overcome opposition from some conservative Texas legislators, as well as from Gov. Greg Abbott.
Still, “the discussion is happening in Texas,” said Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit group focused on reforming marijuana laws. “Now more than ever, (Texans) are talking about this issue in a realistic way.”
Fazio and other advocates for easing the state’s restrictions on marijuana celebrated a victory two years ago, when the Legislature passed — and Abbott signed into law — what is 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.
But the new law, which has yet to have any impact because the first Texas CBD dispensaries won’t be licensed until this summer, is restrictive, allowing the compound’s use only for certain patients suffering from a rare form of epilepsy, and only after they’ve first tried two conventional drugs that prove to be ineffective.
A number of bills filed in the current session go much farther, with some potentially legalizing medical use of all parts of the marijuana plant — including tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which does induce a high for users — for any doctor-corroborated debilitating health condition, such as cancer, chronic pain, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another bill would decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts, defined as an ounce or less, making it a civil, not criminal, transgression. Law enforcement officers would write tickets in such cases instead of making arrests, and culprits would pay fines of up to $250, do community service or attend substance-abuse classes, but they wouldn’t suffer the permanent stigma of having a criminal record and they wouldn’t crowd local courts and jails.
Other proposals would mandate statewide referendums letting Texas voters decide if marijuana should be legal to possess, grow and sell for medical purposes, or if it should be legal among adults for all purposes.
Aside from the profound medical and social issues involved if any of the proposals win approval, the economic impact on Texas could be huge.
Currently, 28 states and Washington, D.C., have broadly legalized marijuana for medical or adult recreational purposes. New Frontier Data, a cannabis market research firm, estimates the 2017 market for marijuana in those states at close to $8 billion, predicting it will double by 2020 and top $24 billion in 2025. The firm estimates the medical marijuana market alone at $5.3 billion now among the states that have broadly legalized it and projects the figure will climb to $13.2 billion in 2025.
The Texas legal market “would be very significant,” depending on the parameters established by state lawmakers, said John Kagia, New Frontier’s executive vice president for industry analytics. “It would unquestionably have the potential to be one of the very largest medical markets in the country, due to the size of the population.”
As things stand, Kagia said, Texas’ restrictive CBD law probably will generate some increased economic activity once it takes effect, but noted “there really is no comparison with the scale of the industry that can be generated” by broader legalization.
Still, filing bills and getting them approved are two different things. Despite the flurry of proposed legislation in Texas, advocates are far from confident they’ll have a second big victory to celebrate when the state Legislature adjourns in late May.
“All of these things are a high hurdle,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a co-author of House bill 81, the measure that would decriminalize pot possession of an ounce or less in the state. “It’s going to take time and it’s going to take effort.”
Abbott’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the pending marijuana bills, but the governor voiced blanket opposition to legalization in 2015 at the time he signed the Compassionate Use Act, as well to what he called “conventional marijuana” for medical purposes. Some lawmakers also are opposed to loosening any more of the state’s marijuana restrictions, while some law enforcement and business groups have expressed skepticism as well.
As a result, even supporters of full legalization say Texas is unlikely to swing the door wide open any time soon.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who authored House Joint Resolution 46, which would let voters decide the issue, said she hopes her measure advances the debate in Texas but doesn’t expect it to do much else.
“The primary reason I filed this is so we would have that discussion,” Howard said. “But I don’t give it a big chance of actually passing in this Legislature.”
Marijuana advocacy groups generally agree. That’s why they’re mainly pinning their hopes to HB 81 and Senate Bill 170, its counterpart, as well as to HB 2107 and SB 269, two measures that would substantially increase the legality and availability of medical marijuana in the state. State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, authored SB 269, while state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, authored SB 170.
Of the four, HB 81 — the bill to decriminalize low-volume possession — is the only marijuana-specific bill to garner a committee hearing so date. The bill has some bipartisan support, including state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, as a co-author, and a number of members of Republican organizations have testified in favor of it.
Still, some law enforcement representatives are dubious, saying among other things that low-volume pot possession can provide police with probable cause to investigate bigger crimes, and that there currently isn’t a good, on-the-spot test to determine if a driver is under the influence of marijuana. The Texas Association of Business also has said some employers question how workplace no-tolerance and safety rules would be affected, although the organization hasn’t taken a position on any of the marijuana-specific bills.
“Cops are going to enforce whatever laws come out of the Legislature,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. But Lawrence said his group is concerned about what he described as a lack of standardized sobriety tests for marijuana, which could put officers in a position of uncertainty if “we catch (drivers) with marijuana, and marijuana is otherwise legal but we believe they may be impaired.”
Moody, chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee handling the bill, said he thinks procedures can be established for such instances. He has characterized decriminalization as smart government, because time and taxpayer money no longer would be wasted chasing around minor offenders.
“Criminal justice reform has garnered a lot of bipartisan support,” said Moody, who sponsored a similar bill two years ago that made it out of committee but was never taken up by the full House. “It’s hard to predict, but if I am able to get this onto the House floor, I think it will be a very close vote.”
Isaac, a co-author of Moody’s bill and also of HB 2107, concurred, saying members of his party have been slowly coming around to lifting some marijuana prohibitions. During the 2016 Texas Republican Party convention, delegates approved a call in the official platform for “doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to prescribed patients.”
Still, Isaac said many in the GOP oppose lifting any marijuana restrictions because they view it as a foothold for full, even recreational, legalization of the drug. As things stand, he said he’s doubtful HB 2107 — the medical marijuana bill — can win approval unless it’s modified to include a prohibition against letting patients possess marijuana plants in their homes. Currently, the bill would allow qualifying patients to cultivate or possess at least six plants, and potentially more, for their own medical use.
“Right now, (the bill) doesn’t have a chance,” said Isaac, who said he opted to help carry it in part to be in a better position to amend it. Isaac is opposed to full legalization, but said he’s a supporter of medical marijuana and decriminalization.
“Hopefully, a substitute will give (the bill) a good chance of getting out of committee” and onto the floor for a vote, he said. “We’ve got a tough, uphill challenge, but I’m optimistic.”
So are other advocates for lifting marijuana prohibitions in Texas, even as the fate of the various marijuana bills remains uncertain.
“I don’t think it’s a question of if — it’s just when,” said Wil Ralston, a vice president of SinglePoint, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based holding company that provides marketing, payment processing and other business solutions to the cannabis industry in states where it’s legal.
“It’s just kind of a no-brainer,” in terms of the number of Texas patients who could be helped by medical marijuana and the potential business opportunity, Ralston said. “The train has left the station.”