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Texas GOP Signals New Era on Marijuana at State Convention

Texas hasn't fixed its marijuana laws yet, but it's making progress.EXPAND
Texas hasn't fixed its marijuana laws yet, but it's making progress.
Danielle Lirette

Texas, seemingly, is headed for marijuana reform sooner than expected. The state's Republican Party passed a platform Saturday afternoon supporting major changes in the way the state treats medical marijuana and those found in possession of less than an ounce of pot, signaling that years of harsh prohibition could be over as soon as 2019.

As of this weekend, Texas Republicans officially support the following:

  • Making the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana a civil, rather than criminal, penalty punishable by no more than a $100 fine.
  • Improving 2015's Compassionate Use Act — which allows Texans with intractable epilepsy to purchase and use low-THC cannibidiol oil to treat the condition — so that doctors can "determine the appropriate use of cannabis for certified patients."
  • The federal government moving cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 on the Drug Enforcement Agency's drug schedule.

"What this demonstrates is that even the most conservative Texans among us are starting to look at new approaches to cannabis and starting to educate themselves about the fact that prohibition has failed," says Heather Fazio, coalition coordinator with Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. "This is a medicine for many people."

A bill that would've decriminalized possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana made it on the Texas House's voting schedule for the first time in 2017 before being derailed by a procedural maneuver by the ultraconservative Texas Freedom Caucus to stall dozens of bills at the deadline. The proposed law, House Bill 81, picked up 41 co-sponsors, both Republicans and Democrats, on its way through the committee process.

Now, with Texas Republicans endorsing an identical situation as a party, Fazio is hopeful that the 2019 Legislature will endorse decriminalization.

"Having the conversation here at the convention, that's going to help us keep up the momentum that we've earned over the last several years," Fazio says. "Having the position of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana as an official plank in the Republican Party of Texas platform is going to help us tremendously with earning the support of lawmakers."

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During platform committee meetings last week, delegates to the convention said that Texas' current laws lead law enforcement to waste the state's resources. 

"One thing I've noticed as a lawyer with about 10 years experience in the criminal justice system is just how many resources go into the arrests and prosecutions of these [marijuana] cases," Jason Hunter said. "It takes away resources from enforcement against crimes against persons and property and takes away from a vital roll of the government to protect from those who would hurt our people."

During the final platform debate Saturday, delegates signed off on the marijuana-related planks without discussion.

One potential roadblock to the liberalization of marijuana policy in Texas is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Last year, after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said her office wouldn't prosecute low-level marijuana possession, Patrick compared her decision to creating a sanctuary city regarding immigration policy. As president of the Senate, Patrick can stop any bill from receiving a floor vote in the Legislature's upper chamber.

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