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Texas Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Gets Committee Hearing

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Texas lawmakers heard over two hours of testimony on a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana on Monday.

Just before the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee’s hearing on the legislation began, four committee chairs announced they were signing on as cosponsors of the proposal.

House Bill 63, introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D) of El Paso, would set civil instead of criminal penalties for people found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The violation would carry a $250 fine that could be increased to a misdemeanor charge after three repeat violations.

Currently in Texas, individuals found in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can face misdemeanor charges that could result in 180 days in jail or fines up to $2,000.

“I want to make very clear that HB 63 isn’t legalization or medical expansion,” Moody told the committee. “It’s an enforcement alternative, which is to keep marijuana illegal but enforce those laws with a civil penalty instead of a criminal one.”

At the hearing, lawmakers heard from members of law enforcement and the criminal justice system that both support and oppose decriminalizing marijuana.

Nueces County district attorney Mark Gonzalez made the drive to Austin to testify for the bill, even though he was scheduled to lead a capital murder case in Corpus Christi the next day. In addition to supporting HB 63, Gonzalez talked about the diversion program his county and others are implementing to keep low-level drug offenders out of prisons.

“We have to decide enough is enough and to be smart on crime,” he said. “The time is now.”

Senior District Judge John Delaney of Bryan, Texas pointed out in prepared testimony that the bill would reduce the number of drivers licenses that are suspended following a marijuana conviction.

“License suspensions are in some ways more onerous than jail sentences,” Delaney said. “A suspension isn’t over at the end of the suspension period. The suspension continues until the driver takes certain action to get it reinstated. He must fill out an application for reinstatement, pay a $100 fee, purchase expensive SR-22 insurance, and complete a drug education course.”

“The combined cost of these items is a serious barrier for many Texans,” he added.

Delaney said reducing penalties would also save officers’ time.

“Then there are the costs of jailing, feeding, clothing and attending to the medical needs of over 54,000 prisoners a year, plus the costs of processing these individuals through the court system, sometimes with the benefit of court-appointed lawyers,” he said.

Under Moody’s bill, people caught possessing small amounts of cannabis would have the option to take an education course or do community service if they are unable to pay the fine.

During testimony, three police chiefs from around the state testified in opposition to the bill, calling marijuana a dangerous drug and a threat to public health. All three advocated for allowing officers to exercise their own discretion in whether a person should be arrested.

According to an explanatory document circulated by the bill’s supporters, HB 63 would “promote uniformity on a statewide level. The bill would provide legislative guidance to a patchwork system of cities and counties that have attempted to address this on their own.”

“Arrests and prosecutions have little deterrent effect and haven’t caused a decline in marijuana use in Texas, but they do actually make our streets more dangerous by diverting law enforcement from more serious crimes and spurring drug-related violence,” it argues.

If the bill is enacted, marijuana found by police would still be seized and destroyed, in line with current practice.

“Driving while impaired by marijuana is still DWI,” the sponsors’ document reads. “If a marijuana user is causing problems in public, they can still be arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, or any number of things.”

John “Jay” Hall, a retired lieutenant from the Houston Police Department, submitted written testimony on the effects of cannabis prohibition, which he saw firsthand in his 30 years on the force. According to arrest reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety, marijuana accounted for half of 128,003 simple drug possession arrests in 2017.

“This bill also reflects that we are smart on crime with respect to our morality and ethics when we see the devastation that previous marijuana laws have done, especially to communities of color,” he wrote. “This bill shows that we are changing course to allow individuals the opportunity to keep their lives on track.”

Similar legislation advanced out of committee last session but did not receive a floor vote in time to advance.

The bill’s return to Austin comes in the midst of a shift in public perception regarding cannabis. A 2018 survey from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that a majority of Texans support cannabis law reform.

The Republican and Democratic parties of Texas have both adopted marijuana reform planks in their party platforms. And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’s open to reducing penalties.

David Sloane is a criminal defense attorney from Fort Worth who previously served on the police force in Tarrant County. He described the marijuana arrests he made as “like getting the low-hanging fruit.”

“That wasn’t an arrest report I put on the top of the stack for everyone to see. I stuck that underneath because I wasn’t proud of what I’d done,” he said. “I didn’t see the harm they had done to society.”

Sloane said a majority of the cases his practice now takes are for similar marijuana possession charges.

“It’s insane to have me come here and ask for lower penalties,” he said. “It’s going to put me out of business but you know what? It’s the right thing to do.”

Legalization advocates were pleased with how the hearing went.

“We’re thrilled to see such tremendous bipartisan support for House Bill 63,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “This bill represents common ground amongst Democrats and Republicans who are ready to move forward with a more reasonable approach to marijuana policy.”

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Politics

Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment

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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.

The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.

“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.

“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.

The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.

McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.

While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.

The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Mitch McConnell Touts Hemp As He Proposes Raising Tobacco Purchase Age Limit

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Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications

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A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.

The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.

The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.

There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.

Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.

But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.

“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.

The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.

DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in  2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.

Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.

“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”

“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.

Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.

Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.

The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.

Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below: 

Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd

Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections

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A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.

The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.

Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.

The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.

There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.

Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.

And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.

New Congressional Bill Aims To Resolve Marijuana Industry Border Issues

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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