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Cite-and-release for weed may soon become a reality in Dallas.
Cite-and-release for weed may soon become a reality in Dallas.
Matthew Benoit/Shutterstock

What Will 2019 Bring for Marijuana Law Reform in Texas?

The 2017 Texas Legislature was this close to actually doing something about the state's draconian marijuana laws. A bill that would've decriminalized possessing an ounce of pot or less was scheduled for a vote in the Texas House before being scuttled by a procedural maneuver. A comprehensive medical marijuana bill made it further than any similar measure had previously. House Bill 2107 passed out of committee with 78 co-sponsors, more than half the Texas House, but it failed to clear the final hurdle of being scheduled for a vote on the House floor.

The opportunity for change was there, but nothing actually happened before the end of the legislative session last summer. Rather than being disappointed, marijuana reform advocates are hopeful that the groundwork they laid two years ago will contribute to a more successful session in 2019.

Since prefiling bills for next year's Legislature began Nov. 12, more than a dozen marijuana-related bills have been filed, most focused on incremental changes like sentencing equity, therapeutic use, or, again, decriminalizing or reducing penalties for low-level possession.

During a debate with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez in October, Gov. Greg Abbott signaled that he might be open to reducing the penalty for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C, making weed possession a crime like speeding, without a jail sentence. A bill like the one Abbott said he might be amenable to has already been filed, as has a bill, that would, like the popular 2017 decriminalization bill, reduce marijuana possession to a civil offense.

“One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Abbott said. 

While a so-called B-to-C bill isn't the best option — it would leave those busted with a criminal record that could affect their ability to get student loans or pass an apartment or employment background check —  Abbott's openness to the idea is a reason for optimism, activists say.

"While changing B-to-C is absolutely decriminalization and better than what we have now, it actually is not as good, if we're just looking at the policy, as the civil penalties. It doesn't go quite as far," Jax Finkle, the executive director of Texas NORML, told the Observer earlier this month. "We could argue, maybe B-to-C will have more traction because it doesn't go as far, or maybe civil penalties will have more traction because we've worked so hard on it."

Another significant reform proposal would change the way Texas calculates how much weight someone busted with marijuana products like edibles and liquids, is criminally liable for. Under current law, if you get caught with, say, a batch of pot brownies, you can be sentenced for the total weight of the brownies, rather than the amount of psychoactive chemicals the baked goods actually contain.

House Bill 186, from Hidalgo County Democratic Rep. Terry Canales, would bring equity to the sentencing process.

"In Texas, any of those concentrates are almost considered like crack," Finkle says. "Any additives or diluents can be added [to the amount you're charged with possessing]. ... [Canales' bill] would remove the ability to include those diluents. If you have one brownie, you probably have 10 milligrams of THC in there. However, you're being charged with 8 ounces or something, however much the brownie weighs. There's a huge disparity there, and the bill would make it more fair, is I guess how Rep. Canales is looking at it."

On the medical marijuana front, Finkle says it's possible the Legislature could reform 2016's compassionate use act, which allows patients with intractable epilepsy to access cannabidiol oil, to allow doctors more leeway in what treatments they prescribe their patients. It is unlikely, she said, that a more comprehensive medical marijuana bill will make it to Abbott's desk, despite the platforms of both Texas Republicans and Democrats supporting expanded medical cannabis.

"If someone has, let's say, an infection, you've got 30 different antibiotics to choose from. Our government doesn't say you can choose from only these five antibiotics and you can only get them at this maximum dosage a day. They leave that up to the doctor to assess each situation and see what needs the patient has. That's what the GOP platform supports," Finkle says. "I don't think that we'll get that far, but it is an important conversation to have."

Despite almost two-thirds of Texans in a Quinnipiac poll this summer saying they support the legalization of recreational marijuana use, Finkle says recreational weed is still at least three sessions, or six years, away for those Texans who are waiting it out.

"We're having conversations about 'What kind of medical will we get? What kind of decrim will we get?' I don't think that's going to be a conversation this session," Finkle says. "Texans like to consider themselves their own nation state. We like to do things our own way, and that means that [recreational legalization] will probably be later."

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