One of the biggest positive steps for marijuana reform in Texas in 2017 happened here in Dallas. On Dec. 1, the city began issuing citations, rather than making arrests, for possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana. Those busted are still subject to the same penalties as they were before Dec. 1, but Dallas' small step forward came after years of false starts and hard work. In other Dallas County cities, those arrested for pot possession alone will be released on personal recognizance bonds once they are processed, rather than being required to pay bail.
At the state level, the Texas Legislature has taken a similar path, inching toward reform in the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions and creating optimism among marijuana reform advocates about what's possible during the next session of the legislature in 2019.
For the first time in 2017, a bill that would've decriminalized possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana made it on the Texas House's voting schedule before being derailed by a procedural maneuver by the ultraconservative Texas Freedom Caucus to stall dozens of bills at the deadline. Despite the lack of a vote, it's clear that the Legislature is becoming more open to reforming marijuana law. The proposed law, House Bill 81, picked up 41 co-sponsors, including Republicans and Democrats, on its way through the committee process.
Similarly, 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 of the Texas House, but failed to clear the final hurdle of being scheduled for a vote on the House floor. Heather Fazio, the Texas political director at the Marijuana Policy Project, believes that HB 2107's near success — combined with the 2015 Compassionate Use Act, which allows Texans with intractable epilepsy to use low-THC cannabidiol oil — signals a new willingness among legislators to make marijuana treatment available to those who need it in the state.
"[The Compassionate Use Act] is being rolled out as we speak. Two businesses have been licensed [to produce and sell cannabidiol oil], and cannabis is actually being grown legally in the state of Texas," Fazio says. "Just looking at that from a high level, even though the program is unreasonably restrictive, this is an exciting time. ... We saw unprecedented support for comprehensive medical marijuana reform. That showed that this issue is about people, not politics."
Fazio and her fellow pot advocates plan to build momentum throughout 2018 to push quicker action on marijuana bills during the 2019 session. Beginning in January, Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy will host workshops and meet-and-greet events throughout the state in hopes of helping Texans who support marijuana reform push for policy changes with their legislators.
"We want to give people the tools they need to communicate with lawmakers and effectively participate in the political process," Fazio says. "There's no question that opinions about marijuana have been shifting over the years as people are able to educate themselves and overcome the propaganda and misinformation that we've gotten from our own government for decades about this plant that we know is objectively safer than alcohol, tobacco and, when it comes to patients, many ... pharmaceuticals that are prescribed every day."
Fazio is hopeful that the 2019 Legislature will pass a bill allowing more therapeutic marijuana use, but she is less confident about the chances for comprehensive decriminalization or legalization.
"With the Compassionate Use Act being implemented, there has not been a backlash, even for conservatives. What that demonstrated is that lawmakers don't need to be afraid of this issue," Fazio said. "By and large, their constituents are supportive of medical marijuana, even among Republicans. ... When it comes to decriminalization and civil penalties, it's really difficult to say where we're going to be on that."
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