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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

Trump Says Marijuana Makes People “Lose IQ Points” In Secret Recording

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President Trump could be heard saying that using marijuana makes people “lose IQ points” in a secretly recorded conversation released on Saturday.

“In Colorado they have more accidents,” the president said in the clip captured by Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who is at the center of the Ukraine scandal that led to the president’s impeachment. “It does cause an IQ problem.”

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

Photo courtesy of YouTube/White House.

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Austin Police Chief Says Marijuana Arrests Will Continue Despite City Council Vote

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Chief Brian Manley said he would continue to enforce marijuana laws the day after the city council unanimously approved stopping arrests and tickets for low-level cases.

By , The Texas Tribune

The day after the Austin City Council approved a resolution to stop arresting or ticketing people for most low-level marijuana possession offenses, the police chief made clear he had no plans to do so.

“[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” Chief Brian Manley said during a news conference Friday afternoon.

Though cracking down on those in possession of small amounts of marijuana has never been a priority for the department, he said, police will continue to either issue tickets under the city’s “cite-and-release” policy or arrest people if officers “come across it.”

The difference, according to City Council member and resolution sponsor Greg Casar, is that the council’s move now guarantees those actions will come with no penalty. Tickets will be meaningless pieces of paper and any arrests will result in a quick release with no charges accepted from prosecutors, he told The Texas Tribune after the news conference.

“What has changed since yesterday is that enforcement, almost in virtually all cases, is now handing someone a piece of paper with no penalty or no court date,” Casar said.

The move by the City Council came as a direct result from Texas’ new hemp law which complicated marijuana prosecution across the state. Last summer, when lawmakers legalized hemp, they also changed the definition of marijuana from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.

Many prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, now won’t accept pot cases based on look and smell alone, requiring lab testing to determine THC levels before accepting a case. Such testing is not yet available in public crime labs, though some counties and cities have spent money to obtain test results from private labs.

The council’s resolution prohibited using city funds or personnel to conduct such testing in non-felony marijuana cases. It also directed the elimination, to the furthest extent possible, of arrests or citations for cannabis possession. As Manley also noted, the resolution clarifies it can’t technically decriminalize marijuana, since that is state law.

The resolution gave the city manager until May 1 to report back to the council on how police were trained in this new resolution, and Casar said he hopes Manley reviews his policies before then.

Manley said in the news conference that he would continue to review the resolution, as well as police policies.

But, he assured, “a City Council does not have the authority to tell a police department not to enforce a state law.”

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.

Austin City Council Approves Measure To End Most Marijuana Arrests

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Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans

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Andrew Yang says he wants to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans to help them combat mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During a town hall event at an Iowa college on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked whether he would take initiative and allow veterans to access medical marijuana if elected. Yang replied he “will be so excited to be that commander-in-chief” that he would not only end federal cannabis prohibition but would go one step further by legalizing the psychedelic fungus for veterans as well.

“We need to get marijuana off of the Controlled Substances Act and legalize it at the federal level, make it freely available,” he said. “I say this because I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans and other Americans who benefit from marijuana as a pain relief treatment, and it’s much less deadly than the opiates that many, many people are using for the same conditions.”

“I’ve talked to veterans who’ve also benefited from psilocybin mushrooms,” he added. “They said it was the only thing that actually has helped combat their PTSD. I’m for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for veterans as well. Pretty much if it’s going to help a veteran, we should make it easier, not harder, for them to get access to it.”

Yang’s drug policy reform platform is unique in that respect. While the majority of Democratic candidates support marijuana legalization, he’s pushed unique proposals such as decriminalizing possession of opioids and making psilocybin mushrooms “more freely available” for therapeutic purposes. The candidate also wants to invest federal funds in safe injection facilities where individuals can use prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive help getting into treatment.

He hasn’t gone so far as embracing the decriminalization of all drugs, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has, however.

That said, Yang did signal that he’s open to legalizing and regulating “certain drugs” beyond cannabis, which he argued would disrupt international drug cartels. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently said she backs “legalizing and regulating” currently illegal controlled substances to protect public safety and combat the illicit market.

At the Iowa town hall, Yang went on to say that he’s particularly interested in legalizing marijuana, and he again pledged to “pardon everyone who’s in jail for a non-violent marijuana-related offense because they shouldn’t be in jail for something that’s frankly legal in other parts of the country.”

“And I would pardon them all on April 20, 2021, high-five them on the way out of jail and be like, ‘things got a lot better in the last year,'” he said, referencing the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.

Tom Steyer Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Opioid Decriminalization

Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andrew_Yang_(48571382196).jpg

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