The Texas House of Representatives on Thursday approved bills to decriminalize marijuana possession and significantly expand the state’s medical cannabis program.
These are the latest developments to come amid a week that has seen multiple pieces of reform legislation advance in the chamber, including separate measures to reduce penalties for possessing marijuana concentrates and require the state to study the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA.
The bill to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, making the offense a class C misdemeanor that does not come with the threat of jail time, was approved on second reading in the chamber by a voice vote.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D), would also end the threat of being arrested for low-level possession and give people the opportunity to avoid a conviction by providing for deferrals and dismissals. A final vote on third reading is still needed to formally send the bill to the Senate.
The separate medical cannabis expansion proposal was given final passage in the House in a 134-12 vote, sending it to the Senate. It would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program. The bill passed in the House Public Health Committee earlier this month.
The legislation would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.
While advocates appreciate that Texas lawmakers are moving to expand the state’s existing program, they feel it can be improved upon and hope to see amendments to give more patients access to cannabis when it arrives in the Senate.
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On Wednesday, the chamber approved an additional bill that would create a new drug schedule for products containing THC that would carry slightly lower penalties compared to where they are currently classified. But possession of up to two ounces of concentrates would still be a class B misdemeanor that does still carry the threat of jail time. The bill cleared the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee earlier this month.
“This has been a historic week for cannabis reform,” Jax Finkel of Texas NORML told Marijuana Moment. “We have a lot of work to do to finish this session strong and help as many Texans as possible.”
Earlier this month, the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee also discussed legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.
While the Texas legislature has historically resisted most cannabis reforms, there are signs that this session may be different.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”
The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”
Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.
“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”
Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.
Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.
Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.
Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.
Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.
That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.