Texas House Could Pass Bills Reducing Marijuana Penalties This Session. The Senate Is Another Story.

Apr 1, 2019
Originally published on April 23, 2019 11:21 am

Nine bills concerning marijuana and hemp are set for public hearing in the Texas House on Monday.

In a session where more than 7,000 bills have been filed, nine on cannabis could seem like a small thing. But just a few years ago, getting a hearing for even a single bill on the issue would have been unthinkable.

This session, more than 60 bills relating to marijuana and hemp have been filed. Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, said that's the most she’s seen in the Legislature since she started volunteering for the cannabis activist group in 2005, when only two bills were filed. 

“But now we see this session, we’ve jumped to 60 bills having to do with cannabis in some way, whether it be medical, penalty reduction or hemp," she said. "So that is a huge jump upward, even from last session – where we had over a dozen bills, but nowhere near 60."

She said her group’s efforts aren’t just focused on expanding medicinal marijuana or growing hemp, which can be used for a number of things including thread.

“We need to stop criminalizing people for low-level amounts of marijuana possession," Finkel said. "And that is supported in the Republican and Democratic platforms, so this is a bipartisan effort."

Six of the bills being heard are focused on reducing penalties associated with cannabis-related crimes. State Rep. Sheryl Cole, who represents parts of Austin, is the author of one of those bills. She said it and others are baby steps toward possible statewide legalization.

“A vast majority of Texans agree that our marijuana laws are too harsh," she said. "And a majority even believe [marijuana] should be legalized."

Cole said too much of taxpayers' money is spent on the arrest and prosecution of low-level marijuana offenders.

“We could use those resources to do counseling, or drug treatment, or supporting victims of serious crimes,” she said.

But that’s in the Texas House. Over in the Senate, efforts to change cannabis laws are not as popular. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads up that more conservative branch of the Legislature, has made it clear he’s not interested in any legislation that weakens marijuana laws.

Finkel said she dropped off a petition to Patrick’s office last week with more than 5,000 signatures asking him to consider common-sense changes to cannabis law.

“He’s been very clear that he wants to focus on things that have support and so when he sees that this has support, I hope he will reconsider his position,” she said.

Along with the criminal penalty bills, there are three bills focused on the production and regulation of hemp, a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis. Because hemp has low levels of THC, the chemical in marijuana that can make people high, it had been classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. But it was taken off the list last year.

That led Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller to say it's "time to finally end the ban on industrial hemp.”

If any of the bills make it out of committee, they’ll still need a vote by the full House and then face an uphill climb in the Senate.

Bills being heard in the Texas House:

  • HB 989 – Relating to industrial hemp; requiring an occupational license; authorizing fees.
  • HB 1230 – Relating to the production and regulation of hemp.
  • HB 1657 – Relating to the production and regulation of hemp.
  • HB 335 – Relating to the penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marihuana and eligibility for placement on community supervision or on deferred adjudication community supervision for that offense.
  • HB 371 – Relating to the prosecution of and penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marihuana.
  • HB 753 – Relating to the prosecution of and penalties for possession of 0.35 ounces or less of marihuana.
  • HB 1196 – Relating to changing statutory references to marihuana to cannabis.
  • HB 1206 – Relating to the prosecution of and penalties for possession of marihuana.
  • HB 2518 – Relating to the penalties for the possession of two ounces or less of marihuana.
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