Texas is poised for historic action in 2019 to ease some marijuana prohibitions and join a national cannabis legalization movement that, to varying degrees, has already swept up all four of its border states.
Or maybe not.
Cannabis proponents in Texas see the potential for big wins once the state Legislature convenes in January — particularly in the areas of medical marijuana and decriminalization of small amounts of pot possession — based on mounting evidence that the issues have gained bipartisan traction. But resistance still runs deep among some law enforcement officials and social conservatives.
“It’s certainly not a slam dunk or something we are expecting to be easy — but I do think 2019 is the year,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a pro-cannabis advocacy group. “We have the wind at our backs, and I’m very optimistic about the bipartisan support and the growing public sentiment in wanting to see this change.”
More than a dozen cannabis-related bills have been filed in advance of the legislative session, including proposals to make marijuana for medical purposes available to more Texans at greater potency, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all pot and to allow farmers in the state to grow and market hemp — marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin — as an agricultural product to the extent allowed under federal law.
The effort surrounding medical marijuana would build on the state’s lone foray into legalization, the Compassionate Use Act that was approved by Texas lawmakers in 2015. It allows people suffering from a rare form of epilepsy to legally buy medical cannabis in Texas, although only two of the three dispensaries that have been licensed under the law are operational, and their products can contain no more than tiny amounts of the chemical in marijuana that induces a high.
The Compassionate Use Act is so restrictive and has served so few patients that Texas isn’t considered to have a comprehensive medical marijuana program by national organizations that track the issue. The roster of those that do is up to 33 — and now includes all four Texas border states, after Oklahoma approved a medical cannabis bill this year.
“I don’t understand what it is that we are afraid of,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, who has introduced a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would bring Texas law more in line with that of its neighboring states. “It is not like (advocates for greater access to medical cannabis) are out on some limb here — even those liberal bastions of Arkansas and Louisiana have done it.”
His bill — SB 90 — would make many more Texans eligible to obtain medical marijuana under the Compassionate Use Act by expanding the list of qualified ailments to include conditions such as cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe pain.
It also would remove the 0.5 percent cap on the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, the euphoria-inducing component of marijuana — that cannabis products sold under the Compassionate Use Act are allowed to contain. For comparison, marijuana for recreational purposes generally contains from 9 percent to 30 percent or more THC.
But the measure, as well as many of the other bids to loosen the state’s cannabis restrictions next year, could face significant opposition.
A.J. Louderback, legislative director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said he expects cannabis proponents to be disappointed in the outcome of the upcoming legislative session. The sheriffs’ association, which has the backing of some conservative Tea Party activists, is a long-time opponent of such efforts.
“I’m not going to say they’re not going to get the camel’s nose further underneath the (legalization) tent, but I do not see any major changes,” Louderback said. “There may be some minor changes. But I don’t think they’re going to get (big changes) in ’19.”
Louderback, the sheriff of Jackson County, said his group is opposed to decriminalizing small amounts of pot possession because prosecutors throughout Texas already have discretion in how they charge suspects. He also said he’s skeptical of the move to make marijuana for medical purposes more accessible and potent.
The sheriffs’ association isn’t taking a position on agricultural production of hemp, but Louderback said the group views most of the other cannabis efforts as stealth moves toward full marijuana legalization for any purpose.
“Does Texas need another way for people to get high?” he said. “Clearly, it’s a pathway to recreational (use). It’s how you eat an elephant — one bite at a time.”
Advocates for relaxing some of the state’s prohibitions are well aware of such opposition, but they’re taking solace from what they view as indications that it’s increasingly outside the mainstream — even in conservative Texas.
The 2018 platform of the state’s Republican Party is among their evidence. It includes a plank calling for civil, instead of criminal, penalties for small amounts of pot possession, as well as one calling for expansion of the Compassionate Use Act “to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.”
In addition, Gov. Greg Abbott for the first time recently voiced support for reducing penalties for some pot possession — albeit not all the way to a mere civil offense. Abbott, a Republican, said during his successful re-election campaign against Democrat Lupe Valdez that he’s open “to talking to the Legislature about … reducing the penalty for possession of two ounces or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor” because he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana.”
Abbott, who signed the Compassionate Use Act into law in 2015, hasn’t supported expanding it since then. But a comment he made during his recent re-election campaign — in which he said he hasn’t been “convinced yet” that expansion is warranted — is being interpreted as a hint that he eventually might be.
“He has some reasonable concerns,” said Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, the state’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. But “I think that he wants to continue helping people with debilitating conditions” and has an open mind on the issue.
Still, even cannabis proponents view full legalization in Texas for all adult purposes as likely a bridge too far in 2019. A resolution — SJR 8 — has been filed calling for lawmakers to allow voters to decide, but it’s considered a long shot to make it out of the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature next year.
Finkel said her group will be concentrating the bulk of its efforts during the upcoming session on expanding access to medical marijuana, as well as on decriminalization of small amounts of pot possession and on winning approval of hemp production.
“I don’t want to say that we should not pursue (full legalization in Texas), but there are ways in front of us that we can help people and demonstrate that we can make commonsense policy changes responsibly,” she said. Full legalization “is just a very big jump, I think, policy-wise for legislators” in 2019.