Strange but True: Even Texas Is Getting Serious About Decriminalization and Medical Marijuana
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Texas, which leads the nation in marijuana-related arrests, may be on the verge of decriminalizing marijuana possession. While that’s a small move compared to what’s happening in other parts of the country, it’s significant in a conservative “red state” where marijuana laws have remained at War on Drugs levels.
Nothing is a given, but marijuana legalization advocates are optimistic that Texas marijuana law could change this year. Jax Finkel, executive director for Texas NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), told the Dallas Morning News that she remembers when “legislators laughed” at the possibility of changing Texas marijuana laws.
This year should prove different. "There will be change," Finkel said.
Arrests in Texas
This news may come as a surprise to people -- both those living in and outside of Texas. The state has hardly budged on changing marijuana laws, even as the other biggest state in the country -- California, New York, Florida -- have made changes.
Most people are used to Texas making headlines on the other side of the marijuana debate. For example, Texas holds the distinction of leading the nation in marijuana-related arrested. According to numbers from the FBI as reported in Salon, law enforcement in the Lone Star State made 64,949 marijuana arrests in 2016 -- that's 12 percent of the arrests across the entire nation.
Penalties can include a 180-day jail sentence and a $2,000 fine, along with the lifelong stigma of a criminal record. After the Texas Legislature failed to vote on decriminalizing marijuana in 2017, judges in places such as Houston and San Antonio began offering defendants the chance to enter a pre-trial diversion program and avoid getting a criminal record.
But all this could possible change in 2019.
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Both the state Republican Party and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott have endorsed changing Texas marijuana laws and decriminalizing possession of marijuana in small amounts. Those endorsements came in 2018. With that support, two bills have a chance of making it through the legislature. They are:
- A bill from Jim Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana punishable only by a fine (this is Moody’s third attempt at getting this bill passed)
- A bill from state Sen. Jose Menendez that would expand use of medical marijuana to include those who suffer from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Alzheimer's, PTSD, autism, chronic pain, nausea and muscle spasms.
That second one includes medical conditions that other states have allowed for treatment by marijuana, and not just on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma -- all neighboring, conservative states of Texas -- have more liberal marijuana laws.
The Texas Tribune reports that “hundreds” are on the state’s medical marijuana program, and the expansion could lead to thousands. Right now, you can only legally use marijuana in Texas if you have “intractable epilepsy.”
These are small steps in comparison to the what has happened in other parts of the country but, because it’s the second largest state in the country, any change in Texas marijuana laws will be watched closely by the cannabis industry.