BY STANTON BRASHER
Three bills that take different approaches to reforming Texas' marijuana laws got a hearing before the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on Wednesday. Supporters packed the only committee hearing scheduled on the bills in either chamber. With the clock running out on the session, other hearings aren't likely, and regardless odds are long against the Legislature passing any big changes to the state's tough marijuana laws this year.
Still, the bills, along with several others, are at least some movement on the road to Texas maybe someday allowing adults the freedom to toke without fear of arrest.
Each of the three bills the committee considered late Wednesday offers a different approach to the current demand for reform in Texas, from reducing penalties for possession to throwing the door wide open to legalization.
The first two bills, HB 325 and HB 414, seek to reduce possession of 0.35 ounces of marijuana to a Class C Misdemeanor. Currently, it is a Class B misdemeanor. They also drop possession of 2 ounces to a Class B misdemeanor and under four ounces to a Class A misdemeanor. Representatives Harold Dutton Jr. and Gene Wu from Houston are backing these bills.
El Paso Rep. Joe Moody's HB 507 takes a much larger stride in marijuana reform. It would reduce penalties for possession of less than 1 ounce to a $100 fine and no jail time.
"As a lawmaker, I have a responsibility to make sure we're spending our resources wisely and treating our people fairly," Moody said in a press release from the Marijuana Policy Project. "That's what HB 507 is about."
The bill that has most legalization advocates producing foam from their previously dry cotton mouths is HB 2165 from Rep. David Simpson of Tyler. This bill effectively legalizes marijuana with little to no regulation, like "tomatoes or jalapenos."
While critics of this bill have been quick to point out the lack of regulation could do more harm than good, Shaun McAlister, director of DFW NORML, is confident that this bill is a stepping stone to a broader version of reform.
"Should Simpson's bill pass this session, I wouldn't be surprised to see future bills that work to establish a regulatory framework as we've seen in other states," McAlister said.
If Simpson's bill passes this session, Unfair Park wouldn't be surprised by anything ever again -- flying pigs, leprechauns, a Democratic majority in the Legislature.
While these three bills are Bogarting the spotlight, eight others are also floating around Texas House and Senate. SB 1417, for instance, is a senate companion bill to H.B. 507. It also seeks to change simple possession to a citable offense and not a criminal one.
Aside from seeking to decriminalize, many representatives are looking forward to future industries that include hemp-based products. While hemp products are legal to purchase in Texas -- at least those that can't get you high -- hemp production is still illegal. HB 1322 and HB 557 both seek to make hemp production and hemp research legal in Texas.
Finally, what many would consider to be the most beneficial, House and Senate are considering a number of medicinal bills. Bills filed in both chambers would make it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients suffering from cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and various other ailments where marijuana treatment has proven to be effective. HB 837 allows for medical use of marijuana to be a defense in court.
"I'm personally most excited about HB 3785, which would finally bring a meaningful medical marijuana program to those who need it most in the Lone Star State," McAlister said.
While McAlister may be excited about the whole-plant medical bills, he is worried about two other bills that deal with CBD-only legislation. CBD is one of the many active components of marijuana and while it has shown medical properties, opponents argue that it is not as effective as using the whole plant for treatment.
McAlister fears that CBD-only legislation could prevent a further comprehensive form of medicinal cannabis. He is also concerned with a provision within the bills that states "no other treatments approved by the FDA are available as a precondition to medical cannabis," meaning that before patients could get their CBD medicine, they'd have to try everything else.
"Patients would be forced to try dangerous pharmaceuticals, VNS implants and possibly even brain surgery first, before they were able to have medical marijuana," McAlister said. "This plant should not be treated as a medicine of last resort, so I hope my fellow citizens will stand up and help us get medical marijuana right the first time in the Lone Star State."
Not everyone in Texas sits in the smoke circle when it comes to marijuana legalization. Christopher Dyer, the president of the Dallas County Sheriff's Association, opposes marijuana law reform.
"On most decisions like this, l try to weigh what we gain versus what we lose," Dyer said. "I have not reviewed all of these bills in any detail but I do not believe the legalization of marijuana would be in the best interests of Texas."
With other sheriff's associations across Texas echoing similar sentiment, one might argue that they are the greatest opposition to passing any or all of these bills. McAlister disagrees.
"In my opinion, the greatest opposition to marijuana law reform is the unwillingness of our supporters to pick up the phone and make a five minute phone call."