On the heels of five U.S. states voting to legalize marijuana in some form last week, lawmakers in Texas are getting a head start introducing a number of cannabis-related bills for next year, including several that would legalize it for adult use.
The legalization proposals are among at least 13 pieces of marijuana legislation pre-filed by lawmakers on Monday and Tuesday for the 2021 legislative session, which begins in January. Other bills would legalize high-THC cannabis for medical use, decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and put legalization before state voters on the ballot. Another would shield consumers from existing criminal laws for marijuana possession if they reasonably expected a product to be legal hemp.
Many of the bills would usher in big changes for Texas, which currently allows only certain forms of low-THC medical marijuana to treat specific conditions, but the legalization measure is by far the most sweeping. Sponsored by state Sen.-elect Roland Gutierrez (D), SB 140 would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older and establish a commercial cannabis industry in the state.
Much of the incoming senator’s argument so far for the bill is financial. Gutierrez, currently a member of the state House of Representatives, said Monday that the measure could eventually bring a $3.6 billion boost to the state economy.
A report last month published by the law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP estimated that marijuana legalization in Texas could produce more than $1.1 billion in state tax revenue plus millions more in licensing and other fees. The state is estimated to face a $4.6 billion deficit when the Legislature convenes next year, the state comptroller said in July.
Texas will be facing tremendous budgetary challenges next session. My bill would create 30,000 new jobs for our state and produce $3.2 billion in new revenue WITHOUT raising taxes on everyday Texans!
— Roland Gutierrez (@RolandForTexas) November 9, 2020
“There is going to be a budget shortfall to affect all Texans,” Gutierrez said in a statement Monday, according to Fox 29. “In order to best serve our state, we have to look at cannabis legalization as a solution and not keep going back to the taxpayers and raise their taxes.”
Technically speaking, the bill effectively would raise taxes on the state’s current marijuana consumers, although most would probably think that’s a good trade for not being criminalized any longer. Legal sales under Gutierrez’s legislation would carry a 10 percent tax on sales, which would fund schools, border security and local law enforcement. Gutierrez said the measure could also generate “at least 30,000 high-paying jobs” in the state.
Last month, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) jokingly said Texas should not legalize marijuana because he wanted tourists to come spend money in his state instead. “Make sure to consider Colorado first in any Texas decisions,” he quipped on Twitter.
Rep. Joseph Moody (D), who in past session has led efforts to decriminalize marijuana possession, is now pushing a separate broader cannabis legalization bill, HB 447.
This year, Rep. Erin Zwiener (D) will carry the decriminalization proposal, HB 441.
“This change has the opportunity to save local governments millions of dollars while keeping everyday Texans out of the criminal justice system,” she said on Twitter.
(2/2) This change has the opportunity to save local governments millions of dollars while keeping everyday Texans out of the criminal justice system. Rep. Moody previously carried this legislation and I'm excited to work with him to get this over the finish line.
— Erin Zwiener (@ErinForYall) November 10, 2020
Monday was the first day for Texas lawmakers to pre-file legislation to be considered in next year’s legislative session, and more marijuana bills are expected to be introduced in coming weeks. Advocates are optimistic the activity means 2021 could be a big year for cannabis reform in Texas.
“We’re pleased to see a variety of cannabis related bills introduced so early in the pre-filing period,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment in an email. “Democratic and Republican lawmakers are making cannabis a priority,” she said, “which is a good sign for advocates as we prepare for the upcoming legislative session.”
The Texas Legislature only meets every other year, and in 2019 lawmakers considered a handful of major reforms, including decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and expansion of the state’s limited medical cannabis program. By comparison, hemp, which is legal under federal law, includes all cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC.
The cannabis decriminalization bill passed the Texas House but later died in the Senate without a vote.
The state did legalize hemp that year, however, and advocates said they felt legislators took marijuana reform more seriously than ever.
Other measures pre-filed on Monday reintroduce the subject of medical marijuana reform.
HB 43, sponsored by Rep. Alex Dominguez (D), would expand the current limited program by removing the low-THC cap and allowing doctors to recommend marijuana for any medical condition they see fit.
SB 90, sponsored by Sen. José Menéndez (D), would also remove the state’s 0.5 percent THC limit on medical products and expand the program to include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as any other medical condition approved by state regulators. Lawmakers in 2019 rejected repeated calls from veterans and other groups last session to add PSTD to the state’s list of qualifying conditions.
•SB 90-Expanding the medical cannabis program & provides protections for those whom use #medicalcannabis, especially our veterans with #PTSD.
•SB 91-Enforcing coverage of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in health insurance, similar to other mental illnesses#txlege
— José Menéndez (@Menendez4Texas) November 10, 2020
A House bill (HB 94) from Rep. Ron Reynolds (D) would introduce similar language in that chamber.
A separate joint resolution (HJR 11) from Reynolds, meanwhile, would ask state voters to decide next November whether to amend the Texas Constitution to legalize the sale and use of medical marijuana.
Another joint resolution, HJR 13, by Rep. Terry Canales (D), would ask voters to legalize the use and commercial sale of recreational marijuana. Unlike the legalization Senate bill introduced by Gutierrez, Canales’s resolution is short on specifics. Voters in 2022 would cast ballots on whether to amend the constitution “to authorize and regulate the possession, cultivation, and sale of cannabis.” Details would come later.
Two other proposals focus on reducing state penalties for low-level marijuana possession.
HB 99, from Rep. Steve Toth (R), would reduce the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, preventing arrest and instead imposing a civil fine. Such violations would no longer prevent Texans from obtaining driving licenses or automatically cause licenses to be suspended. HB 169, filed by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D), would similarly reduce possession of two ounces or less to a Class C misdemeanor, but it doesn’t include HB 99’s driver’s license protections.
Another bill prefiled on Monday wouldn’t affect penalties for possessing marijuana, but it would shield people who buy hemp or hemp-derived CBD products from existing criminal penalties for marijuana if those products were later found to contain too much THC.
HB 307, by Rep. Nicole Collier (D), would provide people charged with cannabis crimes an affirmative defense, allowing them to escape penalties if they could demonstrate that they reasonably thought the product was hemp. A product would need to be labeled as though it was legal hemp, and the person would need to have purchased it “from a retailer the person reasonably believed was authorized to sell a consumable help product.”
Prosecutors across Texas this year have dropped hundreds of low-level cannabis cases, due largely to difficulty in distinguishing between newly legal forms of hemp, which contain less than 0.3 percent THC, and illegal marijuana, which can be indistinguishable from hemp without laboratory testing. As the likelihood for cases to be prosecuted has dropped, arrests for simple cannabis possession have also fallen in many jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, popular support for marijuana reform, whether for medical or adult use, has only grown in recent years.
In 2018, even the state Republican Party added a marijuana decriminalization plank to its platform, although this year it was removed. The 2020 platform does still call for federal rescheduling and the expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program, however.
Polling of Texas voters, meanwhile, shows strong support for ending prohibition. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll published in July found that more than half (53 percent) of surveyed voters were in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use, while another 31 percent said they would legalize marijuana only for medical purposes. Only 21 percent of those surveyed opposed reducing penalties for simple possession.
In September, state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said he supported drastically expanding the state’s medical marijuana program. “If it’ll help somebody, I’m for it,” he said. “Whatever it is. I mean, a toothache, I don’t care.”
Across the country last week week, voters approved every major drug reform measure put before them, including marijuana measures in five states, decriminalization of all drugs in Oregon, and decriminalization of psychedelic plants in Washington, DC. Oregon also approved a separate measure legalizing psilocybin for therapeutic use.
The overwhelming popularity of drug reform among a largely divided electorate is already pushing other states to consider reform measures of their own, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment last week that the results are likely to encourage reform at the federal level.
On Monday, U.S. House Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) seemed to confirm that prediction by announcing that Congress will vote on legislation next month that would end federal cannabis prohibition.
This story has been updated to include additional pre-filed bills.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor