Connect with us

Politics

Texas Prosecutors End Some Marijuana Prosecutions Under New Hemp Law

Published

on

The new law changed the definition of marijuana, and prosecutors and crime labs say they don’t have the resources to test if a substance is legal hemp or marijuana.

By Jolie McCullough and Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending misdemeanor marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than .3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions… will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Marijuana Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

Tarrant County’s District Attorney’s Office previously issued a similar statement, and since last month has dismissed 234 low-level marijuana cases. Harris is in the process of dismissing 26, according to a spokesperson. The counties have said they will still pursue felony marijuana cases, and say they have the option to refile and later pursue charges in marijuana arrests if testing resources become available.

For now, it’s unclear when that could be, and until a process is put in place, prosecutors will “have all these marijuana cases where someone can argue it’s hemp,” said Lisa Pittman, a cannabis law attorney.

“They have to just table those cases,” she said.

A crime lab scientist said even if he gets new forensic testing equipment right away, there is still a months-long accreditation process to be able to use tested drug evidence in court.

Peter Stout, the CEO and president of the crime lab used by the Houston Police Department, said until the law went into effect on June 10, all that was required to identify something as marijuana was a quick test to check for the presence of cannabinoids in things like a plant, gummy or vape pen oil. Determining how much, if any, THC is present, is much more complicated, he said, and he is unable to do it now.

“The plant stuff is one thing,” he said. “All these edibles and infused products is a whole different thing, and I don’t know what we do about that.”

Testing can be done, Stout said, but equipment to test forensic quality on those types of products — needed to determine if it is a controlled substance under state criminal definitions — costs between $300,000 and $500,000. He estimated more than 20 labs would need such equipment to cover the state, and each would then need to go through the accreditation process.

“People can comply with the law if given the tools to do it, it’s just going to cost time and money,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the prosecutor association.

But the Republican Senate sponsor of the hemp legislation, state Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, argued there’s already sufficient technology readily available for counties that need it to test suspected marijuana. Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last month she believed her office had found two labs.

“Although the capacity may not be there yet to receive quick lab results, there are labs ready to receive and test products today,” Perry told the Texas Tribune. “We are having daily conversations with law enforcement, prosecutors, and hemp stakeholders to address and solve any concerns that exist as capacity catches up.”

He added that under the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp that contains no more than 0.3% THC at the federal level, hemp and hemp products would have been crossing state lines anyway — even without legislative action.

“Before the Texas Hemp Bill passed, hemp-derived products could enter our state and be bought and sold with little to no oversight,” Perry said. “In fact, the 2018 Farm Bill prohibits states from restricting the transportation of hemp with less than 0.3% THC. With the passage of the Texas Hemp Bill, we now have proper regulations in place to protect Texas consumers at every turn.”

The state legislation, which called for no funding to purchase crime lab equipment, sailed through the Legislature unanimously largely because of the federal law. Because of the overwhelming support, when Abbott signed the bill on June 10, it went into effect right away — which is part of the problem, according to prosecutors.

“This new law took effect immediately, without the usual grace period during which the procedures and regulations are decided and put in place to support law changes,” the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

Stout said he didn’t know about the changing marijuana definition in the bill until after it was too late to testify, since the bill went through agricultural committees, not the ones that handle criminal procedure. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The scramble among several district attorneys comes months after lawmakers rejected a bill by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have lessened the criminal penalties for Texans found to possess small amounts of marijuana. But prosecutors have noted that the dropped cases and change in policy isn’t decriminalization.

Tarrant County’s 234 dismissals can be refiled within two years if lab results are able to be produced, according to a spokesperson. And Harris County is continuing its marijuana diversion program, which allows those suspected of possessing small amounts of marijuana to complete a four hour class instead of being arrested. If people decide not to take the class, they can “wait and see if labs will become certified.”

But in the meantime, at least in some parts of the state, it appears some marijuana convictions have been placed in limbo.

“You may have to put your marijuana cases on the same ‘waiting for lab results’ shelf as your felony DNA cases and postpone them until the labs can provide the needed evidence for prosecution,” said the prosecutor association advisory.

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.

Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program

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.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month

Published

on

A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.

House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.

“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”

Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.

Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.

No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.

Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.

While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.

Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.

In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.

While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.

Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”

“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.

Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.

“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”

There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.

“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”

“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.

Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”

“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”

Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.

Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”

GOP Senate Chair Says He Plans Marijuana Banking Vote

This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.

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.
Continue Reading

Politics

New ‘Marijuana 1-to-3 Act’ Would Reclassify Cannabis Under Federal Law

Published

on

Another bill to reschedule marijuana was filed in Congress on Thursday.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the legislation, which is titled the “Marijuana 1-to-3 Act.” True to its name, the bill would simply require the attorney general to move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act, with the aim of increasing research on the drug’s effects.

“As marijuana is legalized for medical and recreational use across the United States, it is important that we study the effects of the substance and the potential impacts it can have on various populations,” Steube said in a press release. “By rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I controlled substance to a schedule III controlled substance, the opportunities for research and study are drastically expanded.

“With this rescheduling, researchers can now access federal funds to research this substance and determine its medical value,” he said.

The press release came hours after a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced separate legislation to reschedule marijuana, also to Schedule III.

That bill contained additional provisions that would require federal agencies to develop research agendas for marijuana within one year of its enactment and also establish a system whereby universities could be designated as “Centers of Excellence in Cannabis Research” if they conducted comprehensive studies on issues related to marijuana.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is a sponsor of the broader research bill, is also cosponsoring Steube’s more focused rescheduling proposal.

It’s not clear why Steube chose to file his own reclassification bill or whether the other legislation’s additional provisions were a factor.

The congressman’s two-page bill states that “the Attorney General of the United States shall, by order not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this section, transfer marijuana…from schedule I of such Act to schedule III of such Act.”

“We hear every day about the positive health benefits of marijuana,” Steube said. “Whether it’s young children with seizure disorders, or veterans suffering from chronic pain, it is clear that there are medical benefits to marijuana and I think it’s time we remove the bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from thoroughly studying this substance.”

While he emphasized that the intent of his legislation is to encourage research into marijuana, placing cannabis in Schedule III would also have implications for marijuana businesses, who are currently ineligible for federal tax deductions under an Internal Revenue Code section that applies to anyone “trafficking in controlled substances” in Schedule I or II.

Read the full text of the bill below: 

Marijuana 1-to-3[1] by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Former Anti-Legalization Clinton Cabinet Official Files Marijuana Reclassification Bill In Congress

Photo by Ndispensable.

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.
Continue Reading

Politics

GOP Senate Chair Says He Plans Marijuana Banking Vote

Published

on

The Republican chair of the Senate Banking Committee said on Thursday that his panel will hold a vote on legislation allowing banks to service state-legal marijuana businesses this year.

Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) told Politico that while he doesn’t support ending federal cannabis prohibition, his committee will take up the industry’s banking issues, which was the subject of a hearing the panel held in July. Because marijuana remains federally illegal, many financial institutions remain wary of taking on cannabis business clients—forcing them to operate on a cash-only basis—and there’s a growing bipartisan call to resolve the problem.

“We’re working to try to get a bill ready,” the senator said. “I’m looking to see whether we can thread the needle.”

Legislation to provide financial services to marijuana businesses—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—already exists and was approved by the House Financial Services Committee in March. That bill has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans. The companion Senate bill has nearly a third of the chamber signed on.

It’s not clear what changes Crapo is hoping for, but there’s been talk of adding hemp-specific banking protections, or including language to prevent activities such as Operation Choke Point, an Obama-era policy that conservatives view as biased against certain industries such as gun manufacturers, in order to bolster the proposal’s GOP appeal.

This development comes as Congress returns from a summer recess. Cannabis reform advocates hoped that the Democratic-controlled House would put the SAFE Act to a vote before August, but that window passed.

There have been renewed rumors that House leadership is planning to schedule a vote on the SAFE Act soon, but some dispute has broken out among cannabis reform supporters about the notion of passing a bill seen as industry-focused prior to moving broader legislation to deschedule marijuana and repair the harms of past prohibition enforcement.

Many supporters of more far-reaching moves have zeroed in on a bill House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed, but it’s unclear when that legislation would be able to see a markup by the panel, which for now is focused on issues such as gun reform and the prospect of impeachment proceedings.

If the Republican-controlled Senate were to pass marijuana banking legislation soon, it could increase political pressure on House majority Democrats to follow suit lest they be seen as lagging on an issue on which their party has increasingly sought to lead.

Don Murphy, federal policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that polling in Crapo’s home state of Idaho—one of only three states that currently have no legal cannabis laws on the books—shows that voters in the state support cannabis reform and that “it appears Chairman Crapo is seeing similar results.”

“Apparently MPP hasn’t done the only marijuana poll in Idaho recently,” he said. “Idaho voters support marijuana policy reform and with his support of the SAFE Act the Senator is moving in their direction. What took years to develop could end up in a photo finish as each chamber attempts to beat the other to a floor vote. If true, this is a very good news.”

Idaho activists are working to place a medical cannabis measure on the state’s 2020 ballot.

While it’s not clear Crapo that endorses the SAFE Act as written or that he would use an amended version of the existing bill as the vehicle to advance the issue, he’s made several statements indicating that he’s interested in a legislative fix on cannabis banking.

“We may craft our own bill or we may work with them to craft any amended legislation,” he told Politico.

“It would be terrific for the Senate Banking Committee to hold a markup on The Safe Banking Act, which we believe would result in a favorable bipartisan vote,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “Now more than ever, members of Congress spanning all types of geographic and political diversity recognize the need to amend existing law and move us towards ending federal prohibition.”

Crapo told Politico that he’s particularly interested in passing cannabis banking reform legislation because of the negative impact of the ban on ancillary businesses like plumbing and hardware companies that work with such businesses but don’t deal directly with marijuana.

The head of the American Bankers Association (ABA) predicted last week that the House would vote on the legislation before October.

“THIS is a very important development- thank you [Sen. Crapo] for helping advance this legislation that will allow people and businesses access to the banking sector in states that have legalized cannabis and address the state/federal law inconsistency,” he wrote in response to the senator’s latest comments.

Politically, passing the banking bill in the Senate could give Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), its chief GOP cosponsor, a much-needed win heading toward next year’s election. Democratic candidates, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) are targeting the seat, and Gardner has made much of his work to support the state’s legal cannabis market.

DEA Wants 3.2 Million Grams Of Marijuana Legally Grown In 2020

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.
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Stay Up To The Moment

Marijuana News In Your Inbox


Support Marijuana Moment

Marijuana News In Your Inbox

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!