State lawmakers argue that the tax revenue and jobs created by a retail market for cannabis could help the state devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
With a state budget devastated by the coronavirus, some Democratic lawmakers are hoping the economic crisis could become an opportunity to coax Texas into joining a growing number of states opting to legalize — and tax — recreational marijuana use.
The chances are slim.
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio and state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso filed bills this week in advance of the 2021 legislative session that would legalize, regulate and tax personal cannabis use. State Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg has proposed putting the question of legalization to Texas voters.
The coronavirus pandemic has blown a $4.6 billion hole in the state budget, according to the comptroller’s latest estimate, and the lawmakers argue that a legal marijuana industry could bring in hundreds of millions in tax revenue and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Voters in more and more states, they note, have legalized recreational cannabis use, including four more this month bringing the total to 15.
At the same time, marijuana arrests and prosecutions across Texas have been plummeting, largely because a bill passed last year that legalizes hemp has thrown prosecutions into disarray, and some cities have already eased off on pursuing small pot cases.
“As we see a number of states engaging around the country in a retail market, this is no longer an experiment,” Moody said. “It is also no secret that we are heading into some rough economic waters and we need to explore every possible revenue stream.”
But changes to marijuana laws still face powerful opposition at the Texas Capitol. The handful of legalization proposals filed in recent years have received little to no attention from lawmakers. And even less controversial measures, like lowering criminal penalties for marijuana possession, have fallen flat in the Texas Senate. With Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunch conservative, at the helm of the upper chamber, it remains unlikely that a legalization bill will make it out when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
In 2019, Patrick said he and other Senate Republicans opposed the bill that would have lessened penalties for possession, calling it a “step toward legalization of marijuana.” A spokesperson for Patrick did not respond to questions on his current stance on legalization efforts. Nor did state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican expected to be the next House Speaker, or a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott.
Gutierrez and Moody recognize the powerful opposition to legalization in the Senate. And Moody said while the Republican-majority House overwhelmingly passed a bill in 2019 to lessen penalties, many have still resisted legalization. But given the state of the economy and more states following the trend to legalize and tax cannabis, they said action was needed.
Gutierrez estimated Tuesday that legalization could create up to 30,000 Texas jobs, and Moody said the legislation could “add hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, if not billions.” A recent analysis by a cannabis law firm said if Texas taxed cannabis similarly to Colorado, the state could take in more than $1.1 billion dollars per biennium.
Senate Bill 140 and House Bill 447 would both legalize the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis by anyone over the age of 21. For concentrates, the limit would be 15 grams. Texans would also be able to have up to 12 cannabis plants at their homes.
The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation would regulate the manufacture and sale of marijuana, and there would be a 10% sales tax on any cannabis product. Moody’s proposed Texas Regulation and Taxation of Cannabis Act would funnel most of the tax revenue to teacher pensions and salaries, with some set aside for cities and counties. Gutierrez’s bill, dubbed the Real Solutions Act, would send the majority of revenue to school districts, with some set aside for border security and local law enforcement.
Both Gutierrez and Moody acknowledged lawmakers could shift where any revenue goes during the legislative process, but stressed the need for extra money in the state coffers — a need Gutierrez said other red states have recognized. On Election Day, voters in Montana and South Dakota leaned steadily toward reelecting President Donald Trump and also legalized recreational marijuana.
“[The states] are not exactly the home of liberal ideas,” Gutierrez said. “They see what every other state who has done this has seen: a source of revenue.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, argues it would be irresponsible for the Legislature to not consider legalization next year. She pointed to a Pew Research Center survey that showed two thirds of Americans favored legalizing marijuana last year. Texas support is lower, but still at a small majority, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. In March 2019, 54% of Texans in the poll said they supported legalization of recreational marijuana.
“I’m not sure that this is going to be the session that it happens, but I know that this session it’s definitely going to be talked about,” Fazio said. “If nothing else, it jumpstarts the conversation about repealing prohibition, so we can have a conversation about how prohibition has affected the lives of people.”
In 2019, Texas law enforcement arrested more than 45,000 people accused of possessing marijuana, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. That number was considerably higher in 2018, before hemp was legalized, with nearly 63,000 arrests. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2018, Black people in Texas were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession than white people.
Under Texas law, possessing any amount of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Possession of more than two ounces could mean up to a year in jail, and more than four ounces is a felony. Possessing any amount of any marijuana concentrate, including vape pens with more than 0.3% THC, is at least a state jail felony which carries a punishment of between six months and two years in the state prison system.
Medical cannabis is legal in very limited circumstances. The Texas Compassionate Use Act went into effect in 2015, allowing people with epilepsy to access cannabis oil with very low levels of THC. Last year, lawmakers expanded the list of qualifying conditions to include diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.
Moody, who for years has carried bills that aimed to decriminalize marijuana and make low-level possession a civil offense, said he moved to legalization efforts this year in part to start the conversation.
“We have done a very good job around advancing the conversation around criminal penalties and medical use. We have had little to no dialogue on a retail market,” he said. “As this conversation continues to grow around the country, and specifically in Texas, I think there’s lots of room for people to change their mind on this topic.”
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.
DEA Denies Request To Protect Iowa Medical Marijuana Program, But State Still Considering Action
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected a petition to exempt Iowa’s medical marijuana program from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) this month, Marijuana Moment has learned. But the activist who filed the request plans to push again for the exemption—and the state itself is considering separately filing a petition of its own to the federal agency.
The ask here is unconventional and hasn’t been pursued by any other state that has legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. But longtime activist Carl Olsen has worked with members of the Iowa Department of Public Health to etch out a plan to pursue the exemption under an existing federal statute in accordance with a bill that state lawmakers passed earlier this year.
Olsen’s initial petition, submitted in 2019, was rejected by DEA on November 10. The agency said in a letter that it was denied “because the [Controlled Substances Act] controls marijuana under schedule I, and your requested exemption would result under the circumstances in the lapse of regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal sanctions applicable to substances placed on the various CSA schedules.”
But from the activist’s perspective, DEA didn’t do its due diligence in reviewing the statute that he claims provides for the state-level exemption. And he’s got the tentative backing of the health department, which is still considering submitting its own request, albeit on a different time schedule. The body might wait until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, as they feel his administration may be more amenable than the current one.
DEA regulations stipulate that the agency’s administrator “may grant an exemption in his discretion, but in no case shall he/she be required to grant an exception to any person which is otherwise required by law or the regulations.”
Owen Parker, program manager for the health department’s Office of Medical Cannabidiol, told Marijuana Moment that officials are “still evaluating as how to implement” the requirement in the Iowa bill that passed this year to push federal agencies on protecting health care facilities in the state from federal punishment.
“No final decisions have been made at this time,” he said.
The language of the state legislation in question doesn’t specifically call on regulators to submit an exemption application. Instead, it broadly calls on the public health department to “request guarantees from the agencies of the federal government providing funding to educational and long-term care facilities that facilities with policies allowing patients to possess medical cannabidiol on the grounds of the facilities…or allowing facility staff to administer medical cannabidiol to a patient shall not lose eligibility for any federal funding due to such policies.”
Members of the state Medical Cannabidiol Board said during a meeting in September that the DEA exemption application process would be the most effective way to establish protections from losing funds as a result of its existing medical marijuana program.
That said, at another meeting this month, Parker reported that “internally here at the Department we are still working on that brief, and there’s other discussions that we’ll need to have before moving forward on anything.”
For Olsen’s rejected individual petition, the activist said he intends to submit a request for reconsideration by DEA—rather than go straight to a federal appeals court with a lawsuit. And in that request, he plans to stress that the state is weighing moving forward with a petition of its own.
In addition to asserting that federal law preempts state policies on marijuana, DEA also said in their response to Olsen that the agency is bound by international treaty obligations to maintain the plant’s general restrictive federal classification, and that’s part of the reason it denied the petition. But according to Olsen, those treaties only obligate them to place cannabis in certain schedules of the CSA and and do not address the U.S. statute that provides for administrative exemptions.
For what it’s worth, Iowa’s medical cannabis is more limited than those that have been established in many other states. For example, it limits registered patients to a maximum of 4.5 grams of THC per 90-day period. Prior to a reform adopted by the legislature earlier this year, patients could only access cannabis products with up to three percent THC content.
It remains to be seen whether DEA will approach the state’s application differently than Olsen’s, if and when it’s filed. The agency has historically resisted rescheduling requests, let alone full exemptions, for marijuana.
Scientists and veterans sued DEA this year, arguing that the legal basis it has used to justify keeping cannabis in Schedule I is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions across several decades.
A federal appeals court denied a request from DEA to dismiss the lawsuit In August.
Read DEA’s response to the Iowa activists’s marijuana exemption request below:
Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States
Unable to sway public opinion and persuade voters to reject marijuana legalization on Election Day, prohibitionists have taken a different new in their efforts to block state-level reform: litigation.
In three states, there are lawsuits pending that seek to overturn voter-approved legalization initiatives. And in one state, cannabis opponents succeeded this year in preventing voters from even having a chance to decide on a reform measure.
While every single drug policy reform initiative that made the ballot passed in red and blue states alike this month, prohibitionists increasingly seem to be giving up the public messaging fight to change voters’ minds and are instead resorting to the courts, challenging reform measures on largely technical matters.
Those legal fights are ongoing in Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota, all of which ultimately legalized cannabis is some form on Election Day.
The Mississippi Supreme Court recently set deadlines for legal filings in a case from the city of Madison challenging the medical cannabis initiative that overwhelmingly passed with 73 percent of the vote. The suit was filed days before the election, with the mayor not weighing in on the merits of the measure but contending that its placement on the ballot was unconstitutional due to statutory signature gathering requirements.
The secretary of state and attorney general condemned the action as a “woefully untimely” lawsuit. The Supreme Court said the filers have until December 7 to submit written arguments and the secretary of state has until December 28 to respond.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use tried to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs are now pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
In South Dakota, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and state Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Rick Miller filed a lawsuit in the state’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court last week, claiming that the proposal to legalize marijuana that passed with 54 percent of the vote should be invalidated. The suit, which is partly paid for with state funds, says the constitutional amendment violates a 2018 requirement that “no proposed amendment may embrace more than one subject.”
In September, reform opponents successfully bumped an initiative to legalize medical cannabis off of Nebraska’s ballot on what essentially amounts to a technicality.
While the campaign collected enough signatures to qualify the measure, the state Supreme Court shut it down following a legal challenge. It determined that the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule, much to the disappointment of advocates. But activists have already started petitioning to get a simplified version of proposal on the state’s 2022 ballot.
Arizona activists, who succeeded in getting a legalization measure approved on Election Day, had a different experience following a legal challenge in the summer. Opponents there filed suit arguing that the 100-word summary of the initiative misled voters, but that argument did not hold up in court.
Legalization opponents point out that with voter support for marijuana reform increasing, prohibitionists are now left with few options to stop popular reforms.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a blog post that the opposition lawsuits are “cynical, and arguably frivolous, attempts to undermine the democratic process.”
“Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box,” he said. “Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes. Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Oregon County Prosecutor Stops Drug Possession Cases Early Following Decriminalization Vote
Prosecutors in an Oregon county will no longer pursue low-level drug possession cases.
The move comes weeks after voters approved a historic initiative decriminalizing all drugs—but also months before it’s due to formally take effect statewide.
In a letter sent to police chiefs on Monday, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office said that while it opposes the policy change, officials recognize the will of voters and feel that “having officers investigate and submit cases for a prosecution in the weeks leading up to February 1, which will not lead to any sanction or court supervised treatment, is not the most effective use of criminal justice resources.”
Under the initiative, which passed with 58 percent of the vote, simple drug possession will be treated as a Class E infraction, punishable by a maximum fine of $100 and no jail time. That fine can be waived if an individual shows a court they have completed a substance misuse assessment.
The measure also calls for investments in substance misuse treatment, using tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.
“While we fundamentally disagree with this measure, ceasing to prosecute these matters prior to February 1 is consistent with the will of the voters, which we must respect,” the district attorney’s office said in the email, first reported by Kind Leaf Journal, adding that “misdemeanor [possession of a controlled substance] is still unlawful” until the effective date.
“The decision of our office is not intended not divest local law enforcement officers the ability to conduct lawful investigations, searches and arrests,” the letter states. “Good communication about this significant change is paramount.”
This early discretionary reform action is consistent with how several counties in the state approached cannabis policy after Oregon voters approved an adult-use marijuana legalization initiative in 2014.
“It’s a smart decision to stop arresting and jailing people for personal drug possession before Measure 110 officially goes into effect as Oregon voters have spoken loud and clear that it’s time to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal one,” Anthony Johnson, a chief petitioner for the decriminalization initiative, told Marijuana Moment.
“There is simply no reason to waste law enforcement resources and our taxpayer dollars on personal drug cases,” he said. “Other district attorneys across Oregon should promptly follow suit and enact the will of the voters.”
The vote in Oregon has also inspired efforts in neighboring Washington State to pursue a drug decriminalization model. While activists considered attempting to put it on the state ballot in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic derailed that plan—and earlier this month, the campaign said they would soon be announcing a sponsor of a reform bill to push for its passage legislatively in the 2021 session starting January.
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s attorney general issued a memo this week directing prosecutors to suspend most marijuana possession cases following voter approval of a statewide legalization ballot measure this month.
Read the full letter to Oregon police chiefs on the decriminalization policy below:
As you are aware, Oregon voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalizes, among other things, possession of up to 1 gram of heroin, 2 grams of methamphetamine and cocaine, 12 grams of psilocybin, 40 user units of LSD 40 pills/capsules containing synthetic opiates.
The measure takes effect on February 1, 2021. At that time, persons found to be in possession of these controlled substances will be referred to local municipal or justice courts and subject to the newly created Class E infraction, which carries a maximum $100 fine. This fee will be waived if the offender provides proof of participation in a substance abuse assessment. There is no requirement that the person engage in treatment.
As the voting public has overwhelmingly passed this measure, effective 11/23/20 the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office will stop charging new Unlawful Possession of Controlled Substance cases that will otherwise be decriminalized on February 1. It is our belief that having officers investigate and submit cases for a prosecution in the weeks leading up to February 1, which will not lead to any sanction or court supervised treatment, is not the most effective use of criminal justice resources.
While we fundamentally disagree with this measure, ceasing to prosecute these matters prior to February 1 is consistent with the will of the voters, which we must respect.
Investigations where a juvenile is found to possess controlled substances in amounts that will be decriminalized should still be referred to the Juvenile Department so the juvenile can have the opportunity for supervised treatment. There is a juvenile workgroup convening who will eventually offer guidance about what to do with juvenile referrals after February 1.
Until February 1, misdemeanor PCS is still unlawful. The decision of our office is not intended not divest local law enforcement officers the ability to conduct lawful investigations, searches and arrests.
Good communication about this significant change is paramount. If you have any questions or need clarification about this decision, I encourage you or anyone in your agencies to contact me directly. We look forward to our presentation on December 15th where we will discuss additional specifics of M110 and its search and seizure implications.
Chief Deputy District Attorney
Clackamas County DA’s Office