In much of the world, attitudes toward cannabis are softening and seem to trend toward decriminalization and even legalization. This can certainly be seen in the United States. Most states allow for some form of medical cannabis use, while ten have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.
Though the United States federal government still lists cannabis as illegal, it recently legalized industrial hemp, and talk is building of general legalization. With more and more people pointing out that use of cannabis is a victim-less crime, even conservative states like Texas are showing signs of relaxing support for strict prohibition.
“[This year] there will be change,” said Jax Finkel, executive director for Texas NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“We’re being smarter on crime,” said Representative Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, “not saddling young people with criminal histories that are going to take them out of the workforce.”
Republicans are one key to the changing opinions regarding marijuana, as they seem to be coming around on the issue. The Republican Party of Texas has, for the first time, endorsed the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. Not long after this move, Governor Greg Abbott supported the position as well.
“There’s a lot of momentum,” said Moody. “If this does not make it to the floor for a full debate, I would consider this session a failure.”
Republican support for decriminalization and medical cannabis legalization will be critical for any changes. If the Republican Party takes even a neutral stance, it could mean that the time has come.
There are six bills currently under consideration by the Texas legislature that could see big moves toward the legalization of marijuana.
Texas House Bill 63/Senate Bill 156
Under current Texas law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which is a criminal penalty. Rep. Joe Moody and Senator Jose Rodriguez, both Democrats from El Paso, have sponsored a bill that would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, replacing the harsher penalty with a fine of $250 or less.
Larger amounts of cannabis would still retain the same criminal penalties, and those caught three or more times with an ounce or less can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of $500 or less.
House Bill 371, sponsored by Rep. Alma Allen, and House Bill 335, sponsored by Rep. Harold Dutton, would provide for similar changes. Both Alma Allen and Harold Dutton are Democrats from Houston.
Texas House Bill 209/Senate Bill 90
Texas law permits the medical use of cannabis only if a patient suffers from intractable epilepsy, and only if the cannabis contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that causes the “high.” House Bill 209 and Senate Bill 90 would greatly expand the conditions that allow for the use of medical marijuana.
If the bill passes, patients with cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, autism, chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms and other conditions would be permitted to use cannabis as part of the treatment for their conditions.
“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,” said Senator Jose Menendez, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill. “The Legislature must act and provide medical freedom to those who need it the most.”
In addition to Senator Menendez, D-San Antonio, Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, is sponsoring the House version of the bill. Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, has filed a bill, House Bill 122, that would flat out legalize medical marijuana.
Texas House Bill 551
Representative Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg, is sponsoring a bill that would allow Texans to possess cannabis concentrate if, under the Compassionate Use Act, they are permitted to use low-THC cannabis for medical reasons.
Texas Senate Bill 116
Senator Jose Menendez has also sponsored a bill to legalize industrial hemp production and research, which would bring the state law in line with the new national standards and allow Texans to take advantage of this industrial opportunity.
Despite all the signs, decriminalization is by no means a foregone conclusion. Many point out that even without resistance, inertia can be a high hurdle to change. Representative Moody talked of institutional pressures standing in the way of decriminalization.
Still, there is optimism, and many see changes to cannabis policy as long overdue. Heather Fazio is the director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. She said that, "The work that we've been doing for years is working. Two thousand eighteen has been a tremendous year."
Voices from all across the state of Texas echo similar sentiments, which is in line with changes to national opinion. Polls show a majority of Americans are in favor of relaxing restrictions on marijuana, both for medical and recreational use. With so many bills in the Texas legislature, and with Republicans modifying their stance, it seems likely that 2019 will be the year change came to Texas.