The proposal is being pushed by four progressive members on the City Council. It needs two more votes to pass.
As Texas law enforcement grapples with how to determine if something is marijuana after lawmakers legalized hemp last year, one city’s officials are putting forward their own solution: effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot altogether.
The Austin City Council will vote on a proposal later this month that, if approved, would “virtually end arrests and fines” by city police for possession of personal amounts of cannabis, according to a summary and copy of the measure obtained by The Texas Tribune.
The resolution, raised by four progressive members of the 11-member council, would largely direct police to stop arresting people or issuing citations in low-level marijuana possession cases where officers won’t be able to get a lab report to chemically distinguish between now-legal hemp and illegal marijuana. It also would forbid the city from spending funds or using its personnel to perform such tests.
“If there’s no intent to sell or distribute, we’re not going to mess with it,” said Greg Casar, the lead sponsor of the proposal.
I’m proposing that the City of Austin stop pursuing low level marijuana cases.
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) January 10, 2020
The move comes as a direct result of lawmakers legalizing hemp last June, the resolution states. That state law, while focusing on implementing a hemp agriculture industry in Texas, also narrowed the definition of marijuana from the cannabis plant to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant that produces a high.
The change in statute has led to numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, to now require lab reports on THC concentration levels before pursuing misdemeanor marijuana charges. They similarly argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.
Near Amarillo last month, for example, a man was arrested and jailed for a month suspected of hauling 3,350 pounds of marijuana, but testing and a lab report revealed the substance was in fact legal hemp.
El Paso’s district attorney has claimed this testing is not essential, and his argument was bolstered by Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders in a letter chastising prosecutors for dropping low-level marijuana cases or putting them on hold after the new hemp law. The hemp bill’s Senate sponsor said prosecutors have used the law as political cover to essentially legalize marijuana in their counties. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Austin’s proposal.
Still, many prosecutors are requiring the piece of paper from a crime lab, and Texas’ government-run labs haven’t quite yet ironed out a method for testing hemp versus marijuana. They are able to determine if THC is in a substance, but not how much. In the meantime, new misdemeanor pot cases are being rejected by some prosecutors or held in limbo waiting for lab testing.
But that doesn’t mean police have stopped arresting or citing people, including in Austin. Some people are still taken to jail but then released and no charges are pursued.
Some city police departments are paying more money to go to the few private labs that can perform such testing. For example, Plano’s City Council in North Texas and Montgomery County’s commissioners near Houston have both approved providing more funding for local law enforcement to acquire these new tests that weren’t often required in personal-use pot cases before.
Casar said Austin shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on the issue.
“Most Texas voters want to see marijuana legalized. Most Texas voters don’t want to see counties or cities dedicating extra resources to marijuana cases,” he said. “We’re simply doing what we believe is right given the situation.”
Two more members on the council would need to vote for the resolution to take effect. If approved on Jan. 23, the city would have until May 1 to update its guidelines and train Austin police officers to almost fully stop arresting or citing people for suspected marijuana possession.
The Austin Police Department did not respond to questions from the Tribune about marijuana policing or the proposal Friday. Last year, APD Chief Brian Manley told the Austin American-Statesman that he does not support nonenforcement.
“I do not believe as the police chief in Austin that I would be making our city any safer by not enforcing the law,” he told the Statesman.
In recent years, Austin police have pivoted toward a cite-and-release program for misdemeanor marijuana offenses, where officers may instead issue a ticket detailing when the person should arrive in court to face criminal prosecution instead of arresting them on site.
City police are still making those enforcement actions after the hemp law, but only four misdemeanor marijuana possession cases have been filed by the county attorney since July, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. More than 1,000 were filed in the first half of 2019.
In Dallas, where the local district attorney had already said he would not pursue first-time marijuana offenses before the hemp law, police are still making arrests as normal, according to a Dallas Police Department spokesperson. The cases, then sent to the prosecutors, are either being rejected or sent back until police conduct lab testing.
Other law enforcement agencies, like the Round Rock Police Department just north of Austin, have stopped jailing or citing people for small amounts of marijuana possession. The police chief told the Statesman that he wants to enforce the laws, but isn’t going to arrest someone who won’t be prosecuted.
The Austin council proposal would, by forbidding city funds to pay for testing in a county where the prosecutor requires it, essentially guarantee most low-level pot cases do not move forward. And the resolution would direct police to not make arrests or issue citations in such cases, since they would not be allowed for prosecution.
The measure would not prevent law enforcement from taking action when they believe there is an immediate threat to a person’s safety, and it would allow testing in felony-level trafficking cases. Casar said police would also still be able to confiscate suspected marijuana and pursue charges like driving under the influence of marijuana.
Though the resolution doesn’t technically decriminalize marijuana — the proposal’s summary notes that cities aren’t allowed to do that while the drug remains illegal in Texas — it aims to do so effectively. Last year, Texas lawmakers considered but ultimately did not pass a bill to replace criminal penalties for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana with a civil fine.
If approved, Casar expects the proposal would have an immediate policy impact: In Austin, Class B marijuana possessions have decreased nearly 85% since 2017, and were reduced further after the Legislature’s hemp law went into effect, he said.
Casar also said he hopes the implementation of the proposal will help Austin’s citizens of color, who are disproportionately arrested or punished for violating marijuana possession laws.
“We can be using our limited resources on making things better for people instead of derailing people’s lives for having a small amount of pot,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Congressman Visits Marijuana Dispensary On Behalf Of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Campaign
A congressman and staffers for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign toured a marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas on Monday and discussed the need for federal cannabis reform.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), who endorsed Sanders’s bid for the White House last week, shared photos on Twitter from the visit to NuWu Cannabis, a tribal-owned shop that features a consumption lounge and a drive-thru where consumers can buy marijuana products.
After years of an unjust War on Drugs, it’s time we work to ensure all communities can benefit from legalization—@BernieSanders marijuana legalization plan will do just that. pic.twitter.com/XFWmIZKuus
— Mark Pocan (@MarkPocan) January 21, 2020
“After years of an unjust War on Drugs, it’s time we work to ensure all communities can benefit from legalization—[Sanders’s] marijuana legalization plan will do just that,” the congressman tweeted.
While the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wasn’t scheduled to attend the shop and has since had to drop campaign stops in order to participate in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Pocan and Nevada campaign staff were there on his behalf, Tick Segerblom, a Clark County commissioner and former state senator who helped coordinate the event, told Marijuana Moment.
“We showed him around, explained on how it works, explained how it’s organized under state law,” Segerblom said of Pocan. “He said he’d never seen anything like it.”
The congressman also talked with business owners about the importance of social equity within the marijuana industry. He didn’t purchase or sample any cannabis products, however.
Segerblom said that while Sanders wasn’t able to attend this tour, he believes it’s important for the candidate to participate in such events and talk about his reform agenda to distinguish himself in the race.
“There’s a lot of people who will vote on this issue, and since [former Vice President Joe Biden] has come out against legalizing cannabis, I think it’s a very important issue for him to emphasize,” he said.
It’s fitting that Pocan would tour a tribal-owned cannabis business, as he was the chief sponsor of a 2016 bill that would have protected tribes from losing federal funds if they enact a legal marijuana program. Although the congressman represents Wisconsin, which doesn’t even have a comprehensive medical cannabis program let alone full adult-use legalization, he has cosponsored several cannabis reform bills this Congress, including two that would end federal prohibition.
State-legal dispensaries are getting a lot of high-profile attention from politicians lately. For example, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg visited a Las Vegas marijuana shop last year, Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) paid a visit to a California dispensary and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) toured a business that makes CBD-infused chocolates.
Photo courtesy of Rep. Mark Pocan.
New Vermont Bill Would Decriminalize Psychedelics And Kratom
Vermont lawmakers filed a bill on Wednesday that would decriminalize three psychedelic substances as well as kratom.
Rep. Brian Cina (P/D) introduced the legislation, which would amend state law to carve out exemptions to the list of controlled substances. Psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote and kratom would no longer be regulated under the proposal.
Cina told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that he decided to pursue the policy change based on a “belief that I share with many people around the world that plants are a gift from nature and they’re a part of the web of life that humans are connected to.”
“Plants, especially plant medicines, should be accessible to people,” he said. “Use of plant medicine should be considered a health care issue, not a criminal issue.”
Whether plant medicines are used for treating pain or whether they’re used for seeking pleasure, that is a health care choice, and it’s a waste of society’s resources to criminalize healing practices that go back to the very roots of our humanity. https://t.co/hRDWWqa7yb
— Brian Cina (@briancinavt) January 22, 2020
While it remains to be seen whether the legislature will have the appetite to pursue the policy change, the bill’s introduction represents another sign that the psychedelics reform movement has momentum. Activists in about 100 cities across the U.S. are working to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, but the Vermont proposal is unique in that it’s being handled legislatively at the state level.
Text of the bill states that the four substances are “commonly used for medicinal, spiritual, religious, or entheogenic purposes.”
Larry Norris, cofounder of the national psychedelics reform group Decriminalize Nature, told Marijuana Moment that he’s especially encouraged by the use of the word “entheogenic,” a term that advocates are hoping to bring into the mainstream to more accurately describe the type of substances they want to decriminalize.
“It is exciting to see emerging interest at the state legislative level to support decriminalizing natural plants and fungi that are ‘commonly used for medicinal, spiritual, religious, or entheogenic purposes,'” he said. “The fact that the word entheogenic is making its way into the legislative lexicon speaks volumes for the shift in perspective that is happening nationwide.”
“While we were not involved in the drafting of this legislation, we look forward to offering any support and guidance to Representative Brian Cina in Vermont or any future state legislators aiming to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi,” Norris said.
Denver became the first city in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms last year, followed by a unanimous City Council vote in Oakland to make a wide range of psychedelics among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities. And while lawmakers have been comparatively slow to raise the issue in legislatures, activists in Oregon are working to put a therapeutic psilocybin initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot and, separately, a measure to decriminalize possession of all drugs with a focus on funding substance misuse treatment. In California, meanwhile, advocates are aiming to put psilocybin legalization before voters in November.
Part of the motivation behind the legislation was “recognizing that the decriminalization of mushrooms seems to be a next step in other places, and thinking that it might have greater success if we can make the point that in the path of decriminalization, the next step after cannabis is psilocybin mushrooms,” Cina said. “It was important for me to make a point about the significance of plants.”
“What it goes back to for me ultimately is that any kind of use of substances should be treated as a health care matter, not a criminal issue,” he said. “Whether those substances are used for treating pain or whether they’re used for seeking pleasure, that is a health care choice, and it’s a waste of society’s resources to criminalize a behavior that goes back to the very roots of our humanity.”
The bill currently has three cosponsors and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. One of the cosponsors, Rep. Zachariah Ralph (P/D) told Marijuana Moment that he supports “the legalization of psychedelics because prohibition, generally, does not to work, and has continued to be enforced disproportionally against low income and minority communities.”
“Research at Johns Hopkins University and other facilities around the country on the medicinal use of psilocybin mushrooms are showing some promising results as a long term treatment of depression, addiction and anxiety,” he said. “This is especially important today as we deal with increased rates of suicides and drug overdoses across the nation and especially in Vermont.”
The bill’s introduction also comes as Vermont lawmakers express optimism about the prospects of expanding the state’s cannabis law to allow commercial sales.
While Gov. Phil Scott (R) has previously voiced opposition to allowing retail marijuana products to be sold, citing concerns about impaired driving, he recently indicated that he may be open to taxing and regulating the market. And according to top lawmakers in the state, the legislature is positioned to advance a cannabis commerce bill this session, with most members in favor of the reform move.
Vermont made history in 2018 by becoming the first state to pass marijuana legalization through the legislature, albeit with a noncommercial grow-and-give model. Now the question is whether lawmakers there will again make history by taking up psychedelics reform and decriminalizing these substances at the state level for the first time.
“We’ve decriminalized and then legalized and now might be regulating and taxing marijuana, which is a plant medicine,” Cina said. “But there are these other plant medicines that have been left behind.”
A Republican lawmaker in Iowa filed a bill to legalize certain psychedelics for medical purposes last year, but it did not advance.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Mexican Lawmakers Plan To Pass Amended Marijuana Legalization Bill Before End Of April
An amended bill to legalize and regulate marijuana sales in Mexico is being circulated among lawmakers, setting the stage for a renewed reform push as the legislature goes back into session next month.
The new proposal, which was jointly submitted by the Justice and Health Committees, would allow adults to possess up to 28 grams of cannabis for personal use and cultivate up to six plants. Individuals could apply for a license to possess more than 28 grams but no more than 200 grams.
While Sen. Ricardo Monreal Ávila of the ruling MORENA party said the measure is not final, it’s a next step in the process. He said he’ll be meeting with Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero and Julio Scherer, legal advisor to the president, next week to discuss cannabis reform legislation.
Under the proposed bill, those who possess an amount of marijuana between 28 and 200 grams would be charged a fine amounting to roughly $560, while stricter penalties would be imposed for possession of more than 200 grams.
The Mexican Cannabis Institute, a new regulatory body, would be responsible for issuing business licenses and developing rules for the market. The bill also contains provisions aimed at promoting social equity, such as prioritizing cultivation licenses for individuals from communities most impacted by the drug war.
The institute would also be able to issue grants for research into the cultivation of cannabis for commercial use, according to Milenio.
The introduction of this revised legislation comes more than a year after the nation’s Supreme Court deemed federal laws prohibiting personal marijuana possession and cultivation unconstitutional—a ruling that was followed by a legislative mandate to end the policy. In the months since, lawmakers have worked to develop a regulatory scheme to legalize the plant for adult use.
But while there was progress—with the Senate holding numerous public educational meetings, including one that featured a former White House drug czar—the legislature was unable to reach a compromise on a passable bill before the court’s October 2019 deadline, prompting leading lawmakers to request an extension.
The Supreme Court agreed to extend the deadline for a policy change to April 30.
The new bill going before the Congress is largely similar to the one that Senate committees unveiled just before the earlier deadline, but there have been some minor changes. For example, it amends the business licensing scheme. There will be five types of licenses that the institute can issue: cultivation, transformation, marketing, exports/imports and research.
Monreal stressed that “there is nothing ensured yet” in terms of the prospects for the new draft legislation being passed as written.
— Senadores Morena (@MorenaSenadores) January 21, 2020
“There are those who are not in favor even of the legislation in this matter, so all that we have to pick it up and translate it into the will expressed on the opinion,” he said, adding that the legislature still hopes to pass legalization before the April deadline.
Read the full draft Mexican marijuana legalization bill below: