Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Texas Could Finally Blunt Its Harsh Marijuana Laws Next Year

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2016 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge DANKDEPOT VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • dankdepot via flickr creative commons

Believe it or not, 2015 was actually kind of a banner year for marijuana reform at the Texas Legislature. A bill seeking to lower criminal penalties for anyone caught with a small amount of pot made it farther and gained more support than it ever had in past sessions. Texas lawmakers passed the state's first ever medical marijuana law, which approved some cannabis-derived compounds for a certain, narrow set of patients.

Still, as lawmakers head into the 85th legislature in January, Texas continues to have some of the harshest marijuana laws of any state. And the medical marijuana bill that passed last session was more symbolic than anything; the way it was worded made it basically illegal for doctors to approve patients for treatment, rendering the bill practically useless.

Marijuana reformers and activists say they're confident they'll manage to get a lot more done in the next session. Heather Fazio, Texas political director with the Marijuana Policy Project, points not just to the gains made in 2015. She says there's also sign the state has grown even increasingly supportive of reform just since the past session. "More lawmakers are finally asking, 'Wait, why are we wasting police and prosecutors' resources on people caught with nothing more than a joint?'" Fazio says. "They're asking why patients are fleeing the state for places where they can get the treatment they need."

This is in part, Fazio says, because more and more lawmakers in this traditionally conservative, anti-drug, tough-on-crime state have decided to veer “right on crime.” Warehousing low-level, non-violent offenders in jails not only seems inhumane, but it's not exactly the fiscally conservative thing to do. "A lot of this progress is because more conservatives are open to this dialogue, and this dialogue is helping us move in the right direction," Fazio says.

But in recent years, it's also become increasingly clear that some of the state's top law enforcement officials want change when it comes to pot. Police chiefs in some of the state's largest cities have called the drug war an abject failure. In 2011, Texas prosecutors dismissed 23 percent of misdemeanor marijuana cases. By 2015, according to the Austin American-Statesman, about a third of all such cases were being dismissed. Bexar County now dismisses about 38 percent of misdemeanor marijuana cases. Travis County dismisses half of them.

Still, lawmakers head back into session after yet another decision by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to list cannabis alongside the world's deadliest drugs, like heroin, perpetuating the patchwork system of pot laws across the country we have now. Marijuana has now been legalized to some degree in well over half of states. Yet in some parts of the country, like Texas, a pot possession charge can derail your life and lead to significant jail time. Some cops in Texas might even stick their hands inside you on the side of the road if they think they smell something skunky during a traffic stop.

Fazio expects that even with growing support from conservative lawmakers and law enforcement, she'll have to battle a lot of misinformation. She recalled a forum she was invited to attend at a North Texas Republicans group last year where a county sheriff explained to attendees how they could die from overdosing on marijuana edibles. "I had to calmly explain that, no, your heart won't stop, no you won't die, but yes you should always be careful with dosing," Fazio says. "It really was reefer madness."

Fazio says her group's goals for the upcoming session include fixing and expanding the state's medical marijuana law. As it stands, only people with uncontrollable seizures and rare forms of epilepsy are allowed to use certain marijuana extracts. The law also required doctors "prescribe" marijuana to patients, which no doctors will do because they could lose their DEA license and possibly face other legal consequences; other states simply require doctors to "recommend" or "certify patients for treatment." Fazio wants to expand the kind of patients who can be treated under the law, like people suffering from PTSD and maybe even opioid addiction, and the kind of cannabis that can be used to treat them.

They're also backing a bill state Rep. Jason Moody of El Paso filed this week that would remove the current criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and replace them with a civil citation and a fine. Under that law, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana would only carry a fine of $250. Currently, possession of two ounces or less is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail.

“This bill is about good government and efficient use of resources,” Moody said in a statement. “Arrests and criminal prosecutions of low-level marijuana cases distract law enforcement and prosecutors, leaving fewer resources for violent crime.”

Fazio added: "No one deserves to have their lives derailed due to a criminal conviction for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol.”

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