In Texas, It’s Do or Die Time for Cannabis Decriminalization

Published on May 10, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
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Marijuana reform is gaining major momentum in Texas this week, as the state House of Representatives looks set to vote Thursday on House Bill 81, which aims to decriminalize personal cannabis possession statewide.

If passed, the bill would radically change the way the state punishes low-level marijuana offenders. As it stands, Texans caught with even small amounts of marijuana can face six months in jail, $2,000 in fines and a permanent criminal record. The law would replace those stiff punishments with a $250 fine for possession of an ounce or less.

The law follows a push for leniency in some of Texas’s biggest cities:

  • In March, Harris County, which covers almost all of Houston, stopped arresting people for possession of less than four ounces. People caught with marijuana can now avoid court by attending a four-hour “marijuana diversion program.”
  • In April, Dallas announced a program known as “cite-and-summons.” Starting in October, the Dallas Police Department will issue court summons to minor marijuana offenders, rather than arresting them on the spot.

Decriminalization is only part of the story. Another law—this one to fix Texas’s broken medical-marijuana program—is also doing surprisingly well. It moved out of committee on Monday and now appears almost certain to pass in the Texas House of Representatives.

“Arresting people for marijuana possession does not make our communities any safer,”

Why the sudden change?

Part of it is local politics. By some measures, Houston—the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the nation—is getting dramatically more liberal. In 2012, Obama carried Harris County by just 971 votes. Last November, Clinton took it by more than 160,000.

Last year Harris County voters also threw out their incumbent sheriff and district attorney, both Republicans. Their Democratic challengers won by promising reform on a number of fronts, including marijuana and immigration.

Kim Ogg, the new District Attorney of Harris County, defeated incumbent Devon Anderson by over 100,000 votes. During the campaign, Ogg promised she would “stop wasting time arresting those in possession of small amounts of marijuana.”

Ed Gonzalez, a former Houston city councilmember, replaced Ron Hickman, the Republican incumbent sheriff. Although Gonzalez campaigned primarily on immigration reform—in February, he stopped cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials—he’s also proven friendly to marijuana decriminalization.

Still, it would be wrong to attribute all the changes to Democrats winning elections. Last year, Democrats gained five seats in the Texas House of Representatives. But Republicans still maintain a powerful majority there, 95 to 55.

And yet over the past two legislative sessions Texas lawmakers introduced 24 bills to reform state marijuana laws. “We’ve never seen that many [marijuana reform] bills introduced before,” Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for the Texas branch of the Marijuana Policy Project, told me over the phone.

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More important than Democrats winning elections, Fazio says, is the fact that Republicans are changing their tune on cannabis. Interestingly, this shift isn’t coming from the center. Some of the most supportive politicians are what Fazio calls “very, very conservative”—Republicans with an evangelical and/or libertarian bent, who increasingly see marijuana laws as an intrusion into personal liberty and the doctor-patient relationship.

Still, Texas cannabis advocates are getting excited. Marijuana reform has been gaining a momentum never before seen in the state.

Last year, Texas Republicans added medical marijuana reform to the official party plank. “Lawmakers are looking at the pulse of Texas,” Fazio said, “We’ve seen incredible activism coming from unlikely sources. It’s that kind of professionalism, coupled with humanizing the issue, that’s really moving things along.”

Recent polling supports this theory. 68% of Texans now support decriminalizing cannabis, according to a poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. Nationwide, Republican support for full-on marijuana legalization has shot up 17% since early 2015, from 28% to 45%, according to polls by YouGov.

In the most recent poll, taken in July 2016, 42% of Republicans said they opposed legalization—meaning that, for the first time since YouGov started asking the question, a majority of Republicans now favor legalization marijuana not only for medical users, but for recreational ones as well.

Another sign of the changing political climate comes from Texas’s long and drawn-out fight over medical marijuana.

In 2015, State Representative Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) and former State Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) sponsored the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing medical marijuana in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, signed it.

But the law created one of the worst medical marijuana programs in the nation. It imposed strict limits not only on THC, but on CBD as well. It only served people with severe epilepsy. And perhaps most damningly, it also required doctors to “prescribe” marijuana. As I reported in February, there’s no such thing as a marijuana prescription.

Since then, Texas cannabis advocates have been trying to fix these problems. Until now, those efforts have gone nowhere. State Senator Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) introduced a bill last year to fix the prescription language and remove the THC caps. But by January, the bill had stalled in the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services, never to make it out.

Since then, something has changed. HB 2107, a nearly identical bill, has been sailing through the Texas House with four Republican sponsors.

By the time it made it out of committee, it had picked up 77 co-signers, many of them Republicans. If those co-signers vote yes, as they presumably will, HB 2107 will have enough votes to pass.

The bills will need to be voted on by the end of the week if they are to stand a chance of moving to the Senate before the legislative session ends later this month. And even the new medical marijuana bill isn’t perfect: It doesn’t allow patients to grow their own medicine, and provides no protections for parent caregivers who want to treat their children with cannabis.

Still, Texas cannabis advocates are getting excited. Marijuana reform has been gaining a momentum never before seen in the state. To put pressure on reticent lawmakers, MPP has been running ads in support of reduced marijuana penalties.

The advertisement, first aired last Friday, features a 23-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department named Nick Novello. “Arresting people for marijuana possession does not make our communities any safer,” he says in the ad. By the looks of it, more and more Texans are starting to agree with him.

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Stephen Paulsen
Stephen Paulsen
Stephen Paulsen is a freelance journalist based in Houston. He writes about crime, food, drugs, subcultures, and urban planning.
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