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Texas Marijuana Prosecutions Have Dropped By More Than Half Following Hemp’s Legalization

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After Texas legalized hemp and threw marijuana prosecution into chaos last year, prosecutors filed far fewer criminal charges, police departments paid for private testing and public crime labs were struggling to catch up.

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a widely supported bill to legalize hemp in Texas. The bill focused on agriculture practices and regulations, but it also narrowed the state’s definition of marijuana from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets you high. Anything with less THC is hemp.

Lawmakers were warned the measure could bring marijuana prosecution to a halt without more resources because public labs could only determine whether THC was present in a substance, not how much was present. Still, the legislation sailed into law with no crime lab funding attached. State leaders and the bill authors have since reaffirmed that the law did not in any way decriminalize marijuana.

Soon after its passage, however, district and county prosecutors across the state, in counties that lean both Republican and Democratic, began dropping hundreds of low-level pot cases. Some began requiring law enforcement agencies to submit lab results proving the suspected drugs had more than 0.3% THC before they accepted cases for prosecution. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association advised its members that such testing likely is needed to prove in court that a substance is illegal.

Without public lab testing available, some police agencies turned to private labs — but at a cost. In North Texas, Frisco and Plano police said last month that they continue to pursue all suspected marijuana offenses, submitting cases to private labs for testing. The Collin County district attorney now requires lab results for misdemeanor cases, according to Gail Leyko, the Plano Police Department’s legal adviser. She said all marijuana cases are still being prosecuted, but it costs the city hundreds of dollars more per test to go through private labs that can determine THC concentration.

The Plano City Council approved more funds this summer for the department to test substances in misdemeanor marijuana cases, she said. Other counties without resources for more expensive testing are sending cases to DPS to await its new testing method, rejecting or holding misdemeanor marijuana cases for now, Edmonds said. Private testing can get even more expensive if lab employees also need to testify in court, he said.

“It can be hard to justify that for a misdemeanor,” he said.

Counties like El Paso have argued there still remains enough circumstantial evidence to prove something is marijuana without submitting cases for lab testing. The difference in interpretations has led to varying levels of change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but one obvious result has been a sharp statewide decline in low-level pot prosecution.

Texas misdemeanor marijuana cases drop after hemp is legalized

The number of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases filed in Texas has dropped nearly two-thirds since the beginning of June, when hemp was legalized. Without proper testing, police and prosecutors are unable to chemically differentiate between marijuana and hemp.

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

But the patchwork system of a temporary de facto pot decriminalization in some cities or counties was not intentional, according to the hemp bill’s authors and state leaders. Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has told his chamber’s criminal jurisprudence committee to examine the new marijuana testing before the Legislature reconvenes in 2021 and ensure “existing state law can be enforced.”

That testing is finally almost ready. Officials have been working on a new testing method since last summer, which DPS has said should be ready for criminal case testing early this year. Edmonds said the agency told prosecutors in early December that the testing should be ready in February.

The new method is based on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s test and will indicate if a plant substance has above or below a 2% THC concentration. Officials have said the level, though higher than the 0.3% cutoff, should satisfy law enforcement needs since nearly all marijuana plant prosecutions involve THC concentrations of 12% or higher. There is no timeline yet for when non-plant materials will be able to be tested.

“The first priority is plants, the second priority is vapes and liquids, and the third is going to be the gummies and edibles,” said Sarah Kerrigan, chair of the forensic science department at Sam Houston State University, who is working with public labs on the new testing method.

Still, the labs will be limited in how many cases they can handle. DPS crime lab director Brady Mills said case priority is a “new a question that needs to be addressed” by the labs and prosecutors. Although the new method for plants is still being validated and tested, he said his labs have casework lined up.

“We’re working on the validation process first, and once that gets completed, we’re going to figure out how to address the backlog,” 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.

Disclosure: Rice University and Sam Houston State University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Politics

Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation

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A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.

“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.

“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”

“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”

Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.

“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”

“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.

Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.

“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”

Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.

For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.

Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.

Eleven Senators Push To Let Marijuana Businesses Access Federal Loan Programs

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus

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North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.

“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”

Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.

“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”

The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.

The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.

California activists for campaigns to amend the state’s legal cannabis program and legalize psilocybin mushrooms are asking for a digital signature option.

Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.

Virginia Groups Push Governor To Amend Marijuana Decriminalization Bill On His Desk

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Arizona Legal Marijuana Campaign Asks Supreme Court To Allow Electronic Signatures Amid Coronavirus

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Several campaigns to put initiatives on Arizona’s November ballot—including one to legalize marijuana—are asking the state Supreme Court to allow electronic signature gathering amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has made in-person ballot petitioning all but impossible.

Smart and Safe Arizona, the group behind the cannabis measure, along with three other campaigns, filed a petition with the court on Thursday, requesting that it direct the secretary of state to let them digitally collect signatures. They stressed that the infrastructure already exists, as residents are able to use a system called E-Qual to sign ballot petitions for individual candidates running for office.

While the marijuana campaign has already gathered more than 320,000 signatures, which is well over the required 237,645 signatures for statutory proposals, they have yet to be verified and activists would like to continue collection efforts to ensure that they qualify for the ballot.

In the filing, the groups argued that limiting the E-Qual system to office seekers is unconstitutional. However, state law stipulates that it can only be used for that purpose, so it remains to be seen whether court action will produce the intended result. There was a bill filed last year to expand its utility to allow digital signature gathering for initiatives, but it has not advanced in the legislature.

“Legal access to E-Qual for these citizen initiatives is the right thing for public health and democracy,” attorneys representing the groups said in a statement. “Following Governor Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order issued Monday and current CDC recommendations, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures on paper, at people’s homes, or in public spaces, is impossible to do safely and responsibly during this pandemic. E-Qual is a very reasonable remedy.”

The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

“The Committees have explored potential alternatives, such as mailing petitions to interested persons to circulate within their families,” Smart and Safe Arizona Campaign Manager Stacy Pearson said in a declaration filed with the court. “This, however, is expensive, inefficient, and has no realistic likelihood of permitting the Committees’ to gather large numbers of valid petition signatures.”

The legalization group was joined by campaigns to limit school vouchers, provide sentencing reform and increase taxes on the wealthy to fund public education in the petition. Separately, two other campaigns—to enact voting reform and end surprise hospital billings—filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court on Thursday.

Smart and Safe Arizona is not the only drug policy reform campaign to request electronic signature gathering since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Activists in California released a video last month asking officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

Others have generally shut down campaign activities in light of the pandemic, which has resulted in shutter businesses and shelter-in-place orders across the country.

An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Idaho Activists Suspend Campaign To Legalize Medical Marijuana Due To Coronavirus

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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