Dwindling legislative clock suggests Texas' cannabis reform bills will die in the state Senate

Although the Texas House passed two cannabis bills with bipartisan support, observers doubt Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will let them advance in his chamber.

click to enlarge Cannabis reform in Texas looks increasingly unlikely this legislative session. - Pexels / Kindel Media
Pexels / Kindel Media
Cannabis reform in Texas looks increasingly unlikely this legislative session.
With a week left in the Texas Legislature's current session, political observers said it's increasingly unlikely the state will see any progress on cannabis reform.

Earlier this session, the Texas House passed a proposal to broaden the state's medical marijuana program — one of the strictest in the nation — by expanding it to include patients who would otherwise be prescribed opioids to manage pain.

Additionally, the House approved a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of weed and set up a process for Texans to expunge cannabis-arrest records.

While both enjoyed bipartisan House support, social conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has final say on what bills are discussed in the Senate. Memorial Day is the last day of the session, and experts said the looming deadline suggests he won't allow debate on either.

Patrick, a Republican, has doubled down on culture war issues in a bid to appeal to GOP primary voters, said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. As such, he's unlikely to give an inch on any kind of cannabis reform.

"It's just one of those things that have become entrenched in the social conservative perspective that defines the Republican Party," Jillson said. "I don't think there's any indication he wants to compromise on that."

If the decriminalization bill dies in the Senate, it will be the third time Patrick has killed off such a measure by allowing it to languish in the chamber.

Patrick already provided a hint about what he thinks of cannabis reform earlier this month during a debate on HJR 126, a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect Texans' right to farm.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez filed an amendment to HJR 126 that would have let Texas voters decide whether to allow farmers to legally cultivate cannabis. Patrick directly intervened to stop the Senate from considering the amendment.

“Dan Patrick is dictating what Texas voters are or aren’t allowed to vote on," Gutierrez said at the time. "The simple fact is that the Lt. Governor and his allies are more concerned with fighting fake culture wars than letting the people of Texas decide what is best for them.”

At the start of the session, reform advocates struck a note of optimism that Texas Republicans would listen to the polls, which show overwhelming support for cannabis reform. A University of Texas poll from December shows that more than 80% of all Texas voters think pot should be legal for medical or recreational use.

What's more, nearby states including Oklahoma have implemented robust medical marijuana programs and experienced an economic windfall.

Even so, partisan politics appears to have won out over those considerations.

"Everyone says they're confident they'll see progress at the beginning of the session, but as it drags on, they tend to get smoked out by political reality," SMU's Jillson said.

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