Texas Legislative Session Saw Tiny Victories for Cannabis Reform | Dallas Observer

Texas Legislative Session Saw Tiny Victories for Cannabis Reform

Marijuana reform advocates say this year's results offered a mixed bag, but there's some hope for the future.
After little to no victories this year, cannabis advocates look to 2025 with hopes of reform.
After little to no victories this year, cannabis advocates look to 2025 with hopes of reform. Photo illustration by Sarah Schumacher
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Texas cannabis advocates were cautiously hopeful going into the 2023 legislative session, but there were few victories by the time it was over.

Bills were filed to legalize recreational cannabis in the state, but those were almost destined to die. Other bills that seemed more realistic for Texas also failed to advance to the governor’s desk. But cannabis advocates wouldn’t say the session was a total loss.

Daryoush Austin Zamhariri, creator and chief editor of the Fort Worth-based Texas Cannabis Collective news site, said with people like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott still in office, he and others knew this session would be a challenge. But they stayed active at the state Capitol, advocating for cannabis bills anyway.

Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, filed what some said was the most promising piece of cannabis legislation this session. His House Bill 218 would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and marijuana concentrates. It got bipartisan support and passed in the House but died in the Senate.

Moody also filed House Bill 3652, which would have legalized retail cannabis and allowed adults 21 and older to use, possess and transport up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis. This session was the first that such a bill got a hearing and was one of the small cannabis victories for advocates in Texas. Another minor other victory, Zamhariri said, was the failure of Senate Bill 264 from Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry.

“I feel like the status quo is unfortunate for a populace in Texas that is overwhelmingly in support of cannabis reform." – Daryoush Austin Zamhariri, Texas Cannabis Collective

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Since hemp was legalized federally in 2018 and in Texas in 2019, manufacturers have been creating hemp-derived THC isomers. Delta-9 THC, often just referred to as THC, is the active ingredient in marijuana that gets users high. State and federal laws legalized cannabis with 0.3% delta-9 THC or less. So, hemp companies have been selling products with other forms of THC, like delta-8. These are isomers of THC, meaning they have the same chemical formula with different structures. These can get users high but are often created in a lab and then sold as consumable hemp products.

Perry’s SB 264, which would have banned these lab creations, never made it out of committee.

“Two good things did come out: We didn’t move backward as would have happened with the isomer ban under [SB] 264 by Perry,” Zamhariri said. “Also we made history by getting Joe Moody’s retail cannabis bill in committee. A bill like this has never been heard in a Texas committee and forced the Legislative Budget Board to provide a forecasting document on what full legalization might look like. It shows Texas (in its own analysis) losing hundreds of millions of dollars through taxes over a projected 5-year time period — losing money by not implementing a retail market.”

Those were the positive cannabis-related developments to come out of the session this time around. But Zamhariri still thinks about what might have been. On top of reducing penalties for possession with HB 218, the state could have expanded the its medical marijuana program to millions. The Texas Compassionate Use Program currently admits people with intractable epilepsy, all forms of cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis and PTSD. The program allows only edibles that are capped at 1% delta-9 THC.

Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican, filed House Bill 1805 to expand the program to include chronic pain as a qualifying condition.

“I feel like the status quo is unfortunate for a populace in Texas that is overwhelmingly in support of cannabis reform,” Zamhariri said. “My heart burns for all the patients who will continue to be left out of the Compassionate Use program, and the tens of thousands who will continue to be incarcerated for misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. We have a tremendous amount of work to do to make a deeper impact in 2025.”

The lack of movement on the state’s medical program is a particular letdown to Jesse Williams, a local cannabis advocate and the managing editor and deputy director of Texas Cannabis Collective. “But we're happy that hemp didn't move backwards and legalization received an official financial analysis in the House along with a virtual testimony log showing overwhelming support in Texas,” Williams said.

“Depending on where you stand in the supply chain, the state session was either a success, a flop, or maybe a bit of both." – Zachary Maxwell, Texas Hemp Growers

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Zachary Maxwell, president of Texas Hemp Growers, said this session was a bit of a mixed bag for some. “Depending on where you stand in the supply chain, the state session was either a success, a flop, or maybe a bit of both,” Maxwell said. “Texas Hemp Growers sees it as a bit of both.”

He said retailers, processors and manufacturers won because THC isomers weren’t banned by SB 264. Growers, on the other hand, don't have much to celebrate, he said. “Because the state failed to pass improvements to the agriculture law, Texas will remain bound to outdated regulations while other states are years ahead,” Maxwell said. “For example, Texas growers will not see any relief in transportation regulations or fees. And if Congress adopts reforms in the 2023 Farm Bill, Texas growers will not benefit from those until fall 2025 at the earliest.”

The manufacturing of smokable hemp products has been banned in Texas. Maxwell and others were hoping for some relief from that ban this legislative session, but that never came. “Despite more than 15 GOP representatives acknowledging the issue in our discussions, we were unsuccessful at getting a qualified Republican to sponsor a repeal [of the smokable hemp ban],” Maxwell said. “Texas Hemp Growers is working on a letter to send to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that the hemp agriculture improvements and smokable hemp ban repeal be given consideration in a special session. If something doesn't happen fast, we may inadvertently export our fiber and grain verticals to other states that have adopted new regulations.”

Lawmakers have hinted at a special session to consider more bills, but Williams and Zamhariri don’t think lawmakers are willing to take up any cannabis legislation in a special session. Instead, they’re thinking of what they and other advocates should do differently in the next legislative session.

While many showed their support for legislation virtually, Williams said people will need to turn out in person to show lawmakers that they want change.
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