The State of Texas Marijuana
Patrick Moran, CEO of Texas Cannabis, plans to turn the former cotton gin in Gunter into a facility to produce cannabis oil.
The old cotton gin on the west edge of Gunter seems an odd place to launch an economic boom. A breeze blows through broken windows and holes in its rusting, corrugated metal walls. Inside, a half-dozen or so squat machines that once separated cotton from seed sit corroding in a jumble of elevated metal walkways and busted machinery. Fistfuls of cotton, blackened by age and dirt, still rest in their bins.
High above, a buzzard ruffles its wings from its perch on the edge of a gaping hole in the roof. Visitors have driven it from the eggs it’s brooding in a tin flue near the gin’s floor, so Patrick Thomas Moran urges his guests to step outside.
“We don’t want to disturb the mamma buzzard,” he says.
A buzzard setting up a nursery on a factory’s floor is generally a good sign that the time has come to call in the wrecking crew and start looking for greener pastures, but Moran has plans to relight this old gin with a new cash crop, even if he has to ruffle a few feathers. The CEO and managing partner of AcquiFlow LLC, which bills itself as “the first open, transparent and legal Texas-based cannabis company,” wants to strip out the old machinery and build a cannabis oil production facility inside the gin’s old shell.
Some townsfolk are unhappy about the thought of greenhouses filled with cannabis growing a few blocks from what passes for Gunter’s downtown, though maybe not as many as outsiders might expect in a conservative North Texas town of 1,485 souls that’s closer to Oklahoma than Dallas, 50 miles to the south.
Moran has come to Gunter this evening for a town meeting to talk with some of them.
About 60 people will take up seats in the high school auditorium, and judging from their comments, at least as many or more of them are just fine with Moran’s business plan. Among them is Mayor Tim Slattery. He’s no friend of stoners — he doesn’t think Texas should follow Colorado’s and other states’ path and allow retail marijuana stores to open up shop. But he has a good friend whose daughter suffers from epilepsy, which is what the medicine Moran wants to make under Texas’ new Compassionate Use Act is meant to treat. Moran’s oil and the plants he grows will have little or no THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets its users high. Instead, it will be rich in cannabidiol (CBD), which evidence suggests is useful in alleviating seizures from intractable epilepsy, particularly Dravet syndrome, a genetic form of illness that strikes sufferers young.
Moran’s message to the town is direct: Texas’ new law says he can build his operation in Gunter’s old mill, and he intends to do just that.
The people of Gunter needn’t worry though. High-THC marijuana, either for medicine or pleasure, isn’t legal here yet. But it’s coming, advocates say, perhaps sooner than many people expect — maybe by 2019. Maybe sooner. Five years at the outside. Reformers insist that isn’t a pipe dream, and please don’t ask what they’re smoking. Stoner jokes are passé. Marijuana, for the desperately ill and for everyone else, is serious business.
Way up beyond the march of tan McMansions marking the edge of DFW’s exburban sprawl in Grayson County, Gunter’s a long way geographically and every other way from a more obvious spot for Texas’ first foray into legal cannabis — liberal, weed-loving Austin, say, or some nondescript industrial park in Dallas. Why Gunter?
“It’s so beyond coincidence, dude, seriously,” Moran says. Gunter isn’t just a good place to build. It’s providential.
An old cotton gin or some abandoned factory in a small town was just what he had in mind when he began to make plans after the Legislature passed the Compassionate Use Act, aka SB 339, in 2015. He had plenty of offers of property, he says, but wanted a “cool, funky small town place” with a rich farming history. He was in Sherman one weekend, scouring towns between U.S. 75 and Preston Road but turning up empty, when he had a chance conversation with a friend who had just bought property in Gunter. His friend described the town’s charms, among them the old cotton gin on Main Street.
“I was like, cotton gin? What are you talking about?” Moran says.
Gunter straddles Preston Road, which tracks the route of the old Shawnee Trail, a main path for cowboys driving herds north before railroads and barbed wire. Ranches and farms sprung up in their wake, among them a spread belonging to Jot Gunter, who gave the town its name and first 328 acres in 1901. The town took root, growing into a farming hub in the heart of North Texas’ cotton fields. Hard times in the Great Depression put the town on its heels for a while, and the cotton industry moved west in the 1950s, shuttering scores of gins that once processed bales by the ton in Gunter and other small communities across North Texas.
Its history makes it the perfect place to kick off a new farming industry, Moran says.
“You’re literally in a ... piece of property that has been a central figure in two of Texas’ major economic movements,” Moran says. “And it is objective fact, that has nothing to do with me, that cannabis is a new financial economic boom that is taking place all over the country.”
Moran was ready to jump, but first he wanted to see how welcoming Gunter’s leaders would be.
He reached out to Slattery and was surprised to learn the mayor is a friend of Jeff Davis, a Fort Worth father whose daughter has Dravet. Davis was among the members of the advocacy group Compassionate Access for Epilepsy who testified at the Legislature on behalf of SB 339. Davis’ daughter, he told lawmakers, suffered more than 100 seizures a day.
Slattery got on board. Signs were clearly pointing him toward Gunter, Moran says.
“First and foremost, the benefits to this city are the fact that they’re going to have a medical producer here that’s supplying a needed drug to the epileptics in the state,” Slattery says. “Second foremost is the economic help it’s going to give to the city.”
How much help is uncertain, since the state has not issued regulations on taxing medical cannabis makers, but Moran’s company expects to invest around $3 million in rebuilding the gin and employ around 14 people, at least at first.
AcquiFlow’s subdivisions are developing industrial hemp strains in Kentucky and growing hydroponic basil and lettuce for groceries in Maryland and Virginia. Another distributes LED lighting systems for indoor growers. A fourth division, Texas Cannabis, will combine the company’s experience with lights, hemp and hydroponics in Gunter. It has optioned the old gin and 6.1 surrounding acres. The plan is to erect greenhouses and produce buds that workers will process into oil to dispense to patients on-site and ship to state-approved dispensaries elsewhere. With help from an architect experienced at converting historic buildings to new uses, Texas Cannabis will fill the former cotton gin with secure production facilities, offices and labs. A gift shop and interpretive exhibit will go in an outbuilding.
An hour before the meeting in late March, Moran wraps up a session with a pair of news photographers at the gin, hops in his Prius and heads over to the high school a few blocks north of Main Street on Preston Road. In a spotless modern auditorium lined with Tiger sports trophies and blue and white banners celebrating the school’s debate team — 2002 state champions, plus third places in informative and persuasive speaking — residents will have their own debate as they lob questions to Moran, Slattery and state Representative Stephanie Klick, the Fort Worth Republican who sponsored the Compassionate Use Act in the House.
The old gins in Moran's future cannabis factory still hold cotton from decades ago.
Slattery says that as his constituents learn more about SB 339, opposition to Texas Cannabis coming to town usually fades. The Gunter folk at the meeting for the most part seemed up to speed about cannabis oil. They raised doubts about whether Gunter will see any sales tax benefit from the business, since Texas doesn’t tax medicine. They quizzed Moran about safety. One way to extract oil from cannabis buds involves using butane as a solvent, and home growers with a taste for hash oil have an unfortunate habit of blowing themselves up now and then. (Moran says his operation will use alcohol and C02 to process its oil, so no need to worry about explosions or nasty chemical residue.) They asked about the strain of cannabis being used and whether it will be hybridized with high THC plants. (It won’t. The cannabis will be similar to industrial hemp.) They wanted to know whether the greenhouses also could be used someday to grow other crops. (Maybe, Moran said.)
That last one was a sticking point for one opponent.
The man worried, oddly, about misinformed stoners rolling into Gunter thinking they could get their hands on some high-THC oil and then turning to crime when they learned that wasn’t on the menu. Moran seemed genuinely puzzled by that one. In January Gunter police raided a house with four grow rooms where they seized nearly 50 pounds of “high grade” marijuana — the kind loaded with THC. “I would not classify this as a grow house; I would describe it as a marijuana factory,” Gunter Police Chief Doug Ritter told the Herald Democrat in Sherman. “This was something from out of the movies.”
Marijuana, Moran says, is already in Gunter, but a person will be able to swig his CBD oil by the cupful and not get a buzz.
The prospect of Texas Cannabis’ oil bringing a horde of confused, red-eyed stoners to town seems remote. But what about the future? the man demanded. Moran is upfront about supporting decriminalizing marijuana, and his critic suggested that his Gunter operation is just a move toward an “end game” to someday produce high-THC weed. He wanted Moran to promise he would never do that in Gunter.
Ironically, Moran’s detractor seemed to have a higher opinion of SB 339’s effects than many in the pro-reform movement. “...The language of the law passed earlier this year will make it difficult, if not impossible, for patients and businesses alike, to relish in any benefits,” High Times wrote last August. Unlike other states, patients must obtain a doctor’s prescription to get cannabis oil rather than a less-regulated “recommendation,” and writing them could place physicians crosswise with federal law. Also, CBD oil might be less effective than whole-plant medicines that contain THC, and the patient base is too restricted, advocates complain.
Moran wasn’t willing to make any promises about what tomorrow might bring, but for now he’s confident enough that state regulators will work out any hitches and allow his CBD oil business to thrive. About 150,000 Texans with epilepsy could benefit from using CBD oil, and that’s a bigger population of patients than were first eligible under Colorado's more liberal medical program, he says.
Of course, should Texas ever decide to permit “whole plant” medical marijuana products loaded with THC or even retail sales, having a growing operation and licensed distribution network would be a leg up.
But first things first, Moran says. He bristles at any suggestion that the drive for medical cannabis in Texas is merely a stalking horse for retail recreational marijuana, and he’s frustrated by reformers who complain that SB 339 is virtually meaningless. Parents of children with Dravet syndrome don’t see it that way, he says.
Moran freely admits that he aims to make money in Gunter, but insists he isn't merely looking to cash in on the green rush. A native Texan, he began using marijuana medicinally while living in California.
“The plant saved my life,” he says.
Sure, he’s a businessman, but he has a mission that’s motivated by “apolitical capitalism and the Lord's call to compassion.”
Bringing the marijuana industry above ground and taxing it is good business. Providing sick people access to medicines that might ease their suffering is good-hearted. Changing laws that saddle thousands of Texans with criminal records for possessing a plant is good sense. Opponents disagree of course, but that sums up three main arguments advocates use to buttress their case for change. (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — NORML — reports that 72,562 Texans were arrested on marijuana violations in 2012, according to FBI figures, and 97 percent of marijuana convictions are for possession.)
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Defining reform and where Texas should land is not so simple. Does that mean CBD oil for a few, THC for some or Sour Diesel for all? Should possessing it be legal, a crime or a civil offense that comes with a fine, but no record?
Take Gunter’s Mayor Slattery, for example. “I am not in favor of [bringing] the marijuana recreational business to the state of Texas, and I’ll probably get slammed for that,” he said in a telephone interview a week before the town meeting. “But I don’t do it. I don’t use it. I’m sure it has its benefits, but I know unless the state extremely, extremely tightens up its regulations like other states have failed to do, I’m not in favor of it.”
Yet he grew plainly exasperated with some of Moran’s opponents at the high school. Some of them allowed that they empathized with parents who would try anything to help their epileptic children. In those parents’ place, they said, they’d do the right thing: haul themselves and their sick child to Colorado, saving the kid and sparing Gunter.
“It’s almost just pure selfishness to me, and it frustrates me in the extreme,” Slattery shot back.
To be fair, it’s not hard to suspect that some marijuana advocates are a little disingenuous in their passion for the plant’s medical benefits. Blame California for much of that. The Internet is loaded with first-person accounts of how easily any adult willing to stretch the truth can obtain a medical marijuana card. That hasn’t helped the cause of wider access for truly sick people, as Moran knows personally.
The child of parents with a dozen divorces between them, raised at various times by step-parents with drinking problems and anger issues, he was living in California and suffering intense anxiety and depression when he first saw a doctor about using marijuana as medicine in 2006.
The marijuana helped, but he gave up using it regularly, he says, because he didn't like the stigma and duplicity he felt came along with his state-issued cannabis card. Going to a nightclub and hearing a comedian ask the audience how many had their cards before opening up a round of potheads-are-stupid jokes was unpleasant for Moran, a documented member of MENSA.
“California's state government is a disaster. … Part of the stigma I felt [was because] they had legalized but didn't regulate,” he says.
He soon had reason to reconsider marijuana. He and his family were preparing for his mother’s death from Stage 4 liver cancer when his father died unexpectedly in 2007. His mother died a year later, as the economy collapsed, and stress from the three blows triggered a nervous breakdown for Moran. A new doctor diagnosed him with PTSD and suggested that if marijuana had helped him before, he should stick with it.
His mother, a nurse, endured the final stages of cancer without painkillers because she had seen so many patients addicted to them, so Moran is not a fan of standard pharmaceuticals.
Moran says the advantage of Texas’ go-slow approach is that the state can sidestep the pitfalls of California and other early adopters and build a well-regulated system without some of the political blowback that cropped up in states where weed ran wild.
The Texas Department of Safety is just getting rolling on the complicated process of registering producers and dispensaries. SB 339 and DPS’s subsequent rules carefully define who can work in the industry, from the company CEO down to the bud trimmers. No one who isn’t registered with the DPS will get near Moran’s plants, processing equipment or oil, though he’s planning to build a viewing area in the gin so visitors who pass through security doors can see the factory floor from behind glass. The rules also demand growers keep exacting records of each plant used to grow the buds to make the oil, inventories that will allow the state to trace every dose back to a plant.
And that’s for the stuff that won’t get anyone high.
However palatable SB 339’s restrictions make it for legislators, the state’s slow pace frustrates patient advocates. The law requires DPS to license at least three dispensaries by 2017 — Moran hopes to be operating by the middle of that year — but that could literally be a lifetime for children enduring Dravet’s nearly constant seizures. And the bill offers nothing to veterans diagnosed with PTSD, parents of autistic children, cancer patients, the HIV positive and a host of others who believe that marijuana — the whole plant, not the version stripped of THC — will offer relief. They’re already organized and making plans to come back to the Legislature in 2017. And they’re hopeful. Compassion is a powerful argument.
Opponents to plans for a CBD oil operation in Gunter worry that high-THC marijuana will come next.
"I’m probably the only kid in Texas right now who can stand in front of thousands of people and say that I use medical marijuana every day, and my Republican parents are proud of me,” Alexis Bortell told a cheering crowd at the first Southwest Cannabis Conference at the Fort Worth Convention Center in late February.
The story of a 10-year-old Texas girl laid low by hundreds of seizures every day helped push SB 339 through the Legislature — not that it did her much good. She returned to Texas to urge advocates on but was soon heading right back to her medical exile in Colorado, where she’s living to get access to medical cannabis that contains THC and helps her live largely free of seizures.
Talk to medical marijuana supporters in Texas much, and comments like hers crop up frequently. They’re conservative, but … They’re Republican, but … They don’t use it themselves, but …
That’s partly why advocates are so sanguine about reform in Texas, a place often described as a likely No. 50 in the list of states to end prohibition. In polls, Republican voters are less likely than other Texans to support medical marijuana, but opposition is weakening among the GOP as well. Marijuana reform is less of a partisan issue these days, especially with Texas’ brand of libertarian Republicanism in fashion.
And good, business-minded, regulation-averse Republicans have a lot to love in the business boom that’s followed decriminalization elsewhere. Arcview Market Research, which tracks financial data on the legal marijuana trade in the U.S., reports that “2015 was another watershed year for the legal cannabis market. National legal sales grew to $5.4 billion up from $4.6 billion in 2014, fueled by explosive growth in adult use market sales, which grew from $351 million in 2014 to $998 million, an increase of 184 percent.” Colorado alone collected nearly $98 million from marijuana taxes and fees in the first seven months of its 2015-’16 fiscal year, up 41 percent from the same period the year before, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Arcview predicts the legal market will hit $21.8 billion in 2020, with medical marijuana accounting for more than $10 billion of the total.
Those numbers help explain the scene at the Fort Worth Convention Center. It was a no-THC zone but looked a bit like what might happen if an industrial trade show broke out in the crowd at a Phish concert — lots of colorful glassware and pipes, bushy-bearded entrepreneurs in interesting T-shirts moving among kiosks peddling high tech-lighting, cans of cannabis-infused chili, hemp butter, turn-key hydroponic systems, artfully carved stash boxes, more T-shirts, and a table of glass flasks and lab gear demonstrating a system to remove crud from tarry hash oil, refining it into a light, clean product suitable for medicinal or other uses (kaboom free, naturally). THC Jobs, a job-finder website for people interested in work as a bud-trimmer, sales rep, grower or other job in the industry, had a booth.
The economic argument for decriminalization is strong, but nothing is more likely to convert a conservative to the cause of medical marijuana than having a sick child who needs it. Thalia Michelle, executive director of Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, an Austin-based nonprofit pushing Texas legislators to adopt a “whole plant” law and grant access to people with autism, once was one of those who doubted the sincerity of the medical marijuana movement.
“I really did see it as a ruse. That’s what I believed. … I could not have been more wrong,” Michelle says. Having a 10-year-old son with autism was enough to change her mind. Autism has a long list of potential symptoms, and one of them is aggression; her son had the habit of yanking strangers’ hair in public.
Another is self-aggression. For Amy Fawell, president of MAMMA, that means her son compulsively bites himself.
“He has scars all over his hands from biting,” she says.
Preliminary research — and much of the work on cannabis’ benefits is preliminary because decades of prohibition and stigma have limited it — has shown that marijuana can help reduce or eliminate aggressive behavior in people with autism. Michelle has seen the effect first hand. Her son’s behavior improved after she began giving him hemp oil she obtained legally over the Internet. The treatment also earned her a visit from Child Protective Services to investigate exactly what it was she gives him.
Both Fawell and Michelle describe themselves as politically conservative, and they’re careful to make clear that they’re not lobbying for recreational marijuana. They’re fellow travelers, but that’s not their cause. They want lawmakers to reconsider just how compassionate Texas should be when it comes to the sick, and they believe that could happen in the next legislative session.
That’s the frustrating, hopeful effect of SB 339 — like giving a prisoner a spoon to dig his way out of prison. SB 339 is at least some movement, but it’s not enough. Asking mothers who believe marijuana can alleviate suffering to wait to get legal access to a drug that’s easily available illegally — if they're willing to risk jail, a fine and losing their kids to CPS — is maddening for them.
“You would move heaven and hell to help them,” Michelle says. “… How can anybody say you can’t have this potentially helpful plant?”
Moving heaven and hell might seem to be easier than moving Texas’ leaders on marijuana, but at least lawmakers are willing to listen to their case these days, as the pair learned from the last session, which saw the introduction of nearly a dozen reform bills of all kinds.
“I think we had a great reception until it came time for a whole plant law,” Fawell says. Lawmakers were willing to budge a bit for cannabis oil, but not for THC.
But MAMMA will be back for the next session, as will Texas veterans, who are calling on the state to allow compassionate use for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dave Bass, director of veterans outreach for Texas NORML, is one of those leading the effort to expand Texas’ program to include the whole plant and access to veterans with PTSD and chronic pain. Research in Israel and the U.S., including one study among patients in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program, found evidence of a substantial reduction in symptoms among PTSD patients, but like virtually all research involving medical marijuana, more study is needed.
Bass, a retired Army veteran with 21 years of service, some of them in Iraq, is not willing to wait. He left the military debilitated by PTSD and chronic pain from injuries to his lower back, knee and feet.
“Most vets who stay in 20 years or longer, they deal with chronic pain,” Bass says. “It’s like being a professional athlete.”
Doctors prescribed him heavy doses of hydrocodone for the physical pain and three different psychotropic drugs to treat the nightmares, paranoia and hyper-vigilence from PTSD, which often made him feel as if he were still in combat in Iraq. The treatment was not better than the disease, he says. The mix left him zombiefied, emotionally flat-lined and with thoughts of suicide.
“I either have to be drugged out all day or I have to live with chronic pain” was the choice the law gives him, he says.
He began using marijuana recreationally for the first time in 21 years after he left the military and noticed he felt better. After reading accounts on the Internet of others helped by marijuana, he switched to medical grade cannabis, and his symptoms began to go away. Today, a bowl in the evening lets him live comfortably without opioids or Prozac. His emphasis on “medical grade” is deliberate; cannabis contains more than 60 chemicals classed as cannabinoid, and getting a consistent dosage of marijuana with similar characteristics influences how effective it is, patients say — another shortcoming of SB 339’s approach of stripping out the THC.
Working with Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, Bass and Texas NORML are organizing a lobbying effort among veterans to persuade the Legislature to expand the Compassionate Use Act in 2017. Operation Trapped aims to collect 1,000 empty pill bottles from veterans being treated with standard drugs. Inside, the veterans will place slips of paper listing their disabilities, service and names along with a toy soldier.
That sort of grass-roots politicking from patients is necessary to nudge willing legislators along, Bass says. He knows some lawmakers, for moral or other reasons, will never budge on marijuana, so he directs his lobbying to the pragmatists, and they count voters. A 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll reported that 49 percent of Texans polled think some amount of marijuana should be legal for any purpose and another 28 percent think it should be legal for medical use. Of those polled, 23 percent opposed legalization, though that number rose to 32 percent among Republicans. A Texas Lyceum poll released last September found 46 percent supporting legalization, 28.5 percent in favor of decriminalizing and 19.5 percent opposed.
But the polls that matter most come at the ballot box, and “not everybody votes,” Bass says.
Alexis Bortell cheered marijuana advocacy at the Southwest Cannabis Conference in Fort Worth.
Spinning the support found in polls to votes at polling places is one of the tasks being tackled by Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML in Austin, and she’s counting on patient groups to step up lobbying efforts in the next session.
“You’re going to see a lot of different patient groups seek access,” she says. “… If they don’t get out there and make their voices heard, these legislators don’t care,” she says.
Texas NORML first started publishing a cannabis-centric voters guide in 2012, and this year it teamed up with Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy to produce an interactive guide before the March primaries. “Legislators pay attention to people who vote in their primaries,” she says, and candidates who championed marijuana bills last term won the few primary elections they faced. Marijuana policy is no longer the dreaded third rail in Austin, and Finkel has seen lawmakers’ reaction to lobbying from Texas NORML shift over the years. “You get laughed at a lot less, so that’s nice,” she says wryly.
Denton County Sheriff Will Travis, a regular witness speaking against decriminalizing before lawmakers, lost his primary race. (Travis, a former agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, was dogged by scandalous stories about his sex life and work history, so his opposition to marijuana reform might not have turned the tide against him, even in a college town like Denton. Still, a win’s a win.) State Rep. David Simpson in Longview, who had a bill to strip any mention of marijuana from Texas law and put cannabis in the same class as tomatoes, squeaked into a runoff in his primary race for a Senate seat. For a bill that was dead on arrival, Simpson’s did surprisingly well, passing a House committee vote and drawing tons of media attention internationally, which was helpful, Finkel says.
At the Fort Worth cannabis conference, Finkel sat on a panel on marijuana politics where her advice to the patients, parents and would-be business people was simple enough — contact your representative. If “write your congressman” sounds a little anodyne, it’s what works, she said in an interview after the conference. In an odd way, the limited victory with SB 339 is something advocates will need to keep in mind in the months ahead. Some lukewarm lawmakers will say they’ve already given the state medical marijuana and might be reluctant to push further.
“That’s not fair,” Finkel says. “I’m so, so happy [epilepsy patients] will have access to it … but I don’t want to see other people left behind.”
She was referring to other sick people, and Finkel, Bass, Faywell, Michelle and others say they’re confident that a new medical marijuana bill can pass the Legislature in 2017. Marijuana advocates live on a combination of optimism and logic, Bass says. What might happen to any bill after it clears the Legislature is an open question. Gov. Greg Abbott has said there will be no legal marijuana on his watch. (Presumably, he means cannabis with THC, since he signed SB 339.)
But what about the other, other people left behind, those who aren’t sick but want their weed too? While none of the people the Observer spoke with expect to see weed shops on Texas Main Streets in 2017, they believe that five years isn’t far-fetched, given the way the tide has been turning. Twenty-three states have passed laws allowing medical, whole-plant marijuana. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have legalized it for recreational use and sale. The District of Columbia allows possession, but not sale. This year, California voters are expected to vote on a legalization initiative. Given the state’s size, legalization there could make it politically difficult for the next president to alter a decision by the Obama administration to defer to laws in states that have legalized. Even the DEA, which has long stonewalled any efforts to ease marijuana prohibition at the federal level, is preparing to make a decision on rescheduling the plant this year, the Washington Post reported last week. Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, in the same class as heroin and considered by the DEA to have no medical use, a fact that has stymied researchers looking into evidence that it does.
For Texas tokers in the meantime, one likely bit of relief might come from the next session with the reintroduction of a bill by state Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat whose HB 507 picked up 40 cosponsors and passed the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee too late for a floor vote in the last session. Under it, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana would no longer be a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail. Instead, it would be a civil offense, similar to being caught by a red light camera — no arrest, a “civil penalty” not to exceed $250 fine and, most important, no criminal record.
That’s an important distinction, Moody says. Getting tagged with a marijuana arrest can make getting housing, federal financial aid for college or a job difficult to impossible, particularly for the young and disadvantaged. “All the things young people need to be doing, we’ve completely inhibited,” Moody says. “It creates a lot of problems.” Texas business groups endorsed the bill, he said, in part because of the effect the current law has on the state’s workforce. Moody was also careful to solicit opinions from law enforcement, prosecutors and local justices of the peace, building a solid base for his bill. Any expansion of Texas’ medical cannabis program or decriminalization will face opposition from the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, which lobbied against SB 339. Sheriffs see firsthand the problems alcohol and illegal intoxicants cause in their jails and don’t want to see more, says Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback, chairman of the association’s legislative committee. “We believe decriminalizing our drug laws is not beneficial to criminal justice,” he says.
Although the governor has said no to legalization, Moody says Abbott has not specifically come out against civil penalties, and Moody likes his bill’s chances next session. He’s also optimistic that a more expansive medical marijuana program can win passage. For all its faults, SB 339 had Texas lawmakers for the first time saying that cannabis has medical value, which is a bigger step than the bill’s impatient critics might appreciate. The next Legislature will be faced with deciding how compassionate Texas should be.
With Texans’ attitude toward marijuana shifting along with the rest of the country and libertarian and business-minded GOP members like Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition open to change, Moody says five years is not an unreasonable amount of time to expect a regulated, legal retail market for cannabis.
Of course, there’s a fine line between hope and its weaker cousin, wishful thinking, but Moody, Finkel, Bass, Michelle and Fawell at least seem sincere when they predict that Texas might not be the last state in the union to rethink marijuana prohibition. For veterans who face a choice between breaking the law and broken minds, parents of autistic children, would-be entrepreneurs and others, optimism and logic tell them that Texas will choose sooner rather than later to swim with the tide.
If and when change comes, Patrick Moran will be ready. For now, though, his goal is to help build a well-regulated business infrastructure made up of registries of patients, doctors, dispensaries and manufacturers. Sitting in a busy diner in Frisco a week after the town meeting, Moran picked up a pen and sketched out his vision for the immediate future for Texas Cannabis. In a rough outline of the state, he drew branches radiating out like spider legs, reaching to the Panhandle and El Paso, the Valley, Houston, every corner of the state. The lines led to circles marking places where he sees dispensaries cropping up, or doctors who will someday write prescriptions for Texas Cannabis’ oil. In the middle of it all was a crude star, just about where a mother buzzard sits, raising her brood.
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