Decriminalization of marijuana in Texas is back on the table as nearly a half dozen bills related to the drug’s use were filed on Monday for the 86th legislative session.
Recreational and most medical uses of marijuana are still prohibited in the state, the exception being low-THC cannabis for qualifying intractable epilepsy patients under the Texas Compassionate Use Program.
Marijuana advocates, who have been pushing for decriminalization and an expansion to the medical program, have gained greater bipartisan support in recent years, said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.
Lawmakers filed hundreds of bills Monday in advance of the deadline.
Cannabis advocates championed two bills in particular: House Bill 63, which proposes a civil penalty for less than an ounce of marijuana possession instead of arrests, convictions or a criminal record; and Senate Bill 90, which aims to allow more medical conditions to qualify for the state’s medical program, as well as offer greater protections to registered medical professionals prescribing the drug.
Rep. Joe Moody (D-78) who authored House Bill 63 noted the “swell of bipartisan support” for decriminalization of marijuana in the state.
“I’m optimistic that this will be the session we finally see smarter, fairer marijuana laws in Texas,” Moody said in a statement.
Earlier this year the Republican Party of Texas updated its official platform to support making it a civil rather than criminal offense to possess less than an ounce of marijuana. They called for a fine of up to $100, without jail time. And during a debate with Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez this year, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was open to dropping the punishment of 180 days of jail and a $2,000 fine to just a $500 fine for possession of less than 2 ounces.
The public Republican shift towards more lenient marijuana laws has some advocates feeling confident in efforts to protect recreational use of the drug as well as those who rely on it for medicinal purposes.
State Sen. Jose Menendez (D-26), who authored Senate Bill 90, said “doctors, not politicians, should determine what is best for Texas patients.”
In his bill, Menendez calls for a major expansion of the state medical cannabis program to include diagnoses such as PTSD, cancer, multiple sclerosis and more.
“Patients should not be arrested for using a medicine that is legal in every state that borders Texas, including conservative states like Oklahoma and Arkansas,” Menéndez said in a statement.
Yet Abbott has been less supportive of expanding the existing medical cannabis program, expressing concern over abuses of an expanded program.
Jackson County Sheriff, A. J. Louderback, who serves as the legislative director for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, echoed Abbott’s concerns arguing that medical programs in other states, and marijuana legalization in general, has led to spikes in crime and “devastating social losses.”
Since 2014, around the time Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use, crime in the state has increased. In Denver in particular, the 2016 crime rate increased 4 percent, with violent crime up 9 percent.
Yet Colorado and Denver law enforcement officials can’t say whether the crime hike is tied to marijuana legalization.
“[Property crime is] the biggest driver of our [overall] crime, and of our increases. So, can you attribute that to marijuana? I don’t think you can,” Denver Police Commander James Henning, told CNN.
For her part, Fazio of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, remains undeterred in her optimism for significant marijuana reform in Texas next year.
“The time has come for prohibition to be repealed,” Fazio said.
The 86th Legislative session begins Tuesday, Jan. 8.
Source: Houston Chronicle