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Texas Prosecutors End Some Marijuana Prosecutions Under New Hemp Law

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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 20-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.)

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Local Massachusetts Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure

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Local Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics—the latest in a national movement to reform laws on entheogenic plants and fungi.

Prior passing the measure in a 9-0 vote, the Somerville City Council took testimony from two people with personal experience benefiting from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Several members of the council also discussed the failures of the drug war and the potential medical value of entheogenic substances, particularly as it concerns mental health.

The resolution was supported by the mayor.

“By decriminalizing psychedelic plants, Massachusetts can mainstream harm-reduction strategies as therapists and health providers embrace these compounds for physical, psychological, and spiritual relief,” Decriminalize Nature, Bay Staters for Natural Medicines and the Heroic Hearts Project said in written testimony to lawmakers.

“Somerville has a chance to empower our neighbors, friends, and loved ones to seek the physical and spiritual relief they need and put public health above incarcerating people even in cases of addiction and abuse of controlled substances,” they wrote.

Under the proposal, enforcement of laws against psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca would be among the city’s lowest priorities. It also calls on the county prosecutor to cease pursing cases for persons charged with possessing or distributing entheogens.

The measure states that “the City Council hereby maintains it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the investigation and arrest of adult persons for planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing entheogenic plants… shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Somerville.”

It also stipulates that “no City of Somerville department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults.”

The resolution emphasizes that the measure would not allow for commercial sales of these substances, nor would it permit driving while under the influence of them.

“I love living in a city where this is not controversial and you got unanimous support,” Council President Matt McLaughlin said at the close of the meeting. “Let’s end this war on drugs, and this is a good step.”

Watch the lawmakers discuss the psychedelics reform resolution, starting around 25:45 into the video below: 

With Thursday’s vote, Somerville joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. that have enacted psychedelics decriminalization. Most of the reforms have advanced legislatively, though Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize via the ballot in November.

Three other cities—Oakland, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor—have also decriminalized possession of plant-and fungi-based psychedelics.

In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. The governor announced in November that applications for an advisory board to oversee implementation of the program were being accepted up until January 1.

Much of this reform progress can be traced back to Denver, which became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Since then, activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in pursuing psychedelics decriminalization.

In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution last month that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.

A California state senator plans to file a bill to decriminalize psychedelics for the 2021 session.

Meanwhile, after Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution in September, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”

Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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North Dakota Lawmakers File Bill To Significantly Expand Marijuana Decriminalization Law

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North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in the state.

The legislation, which was filed on Monday, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.

Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.

Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.

Possessing more than 250 grams of marijuana would be a class B misdemeanor and possessing more than 500 grams would be a class A misdemeanor.

The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Sen. Scott Meyer (R) in their respective chambers. It’s been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

“It’s encouraging to see Rep. Roers Jones and her colleagues continue the push to reduce harsh and senseless penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Decriminalization is no substitute for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults, as several of North Dakota’s neighbors have now done. But passage of this bill would continue the trend of progress the state has seen in recent years.”

Activists are moving forward with plans to put a cannabis legalization ballot initiative before voters in 2022.

The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, was submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday. If its language is accepted, the campaign will be able to start signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

The same team behind the new initiative came close to putting a similar measure on the state’s ballot last year, but petitioning efforts were impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.

A separate group of advocates, Legalize ND, also attempted to qualify a different legalization initiative in 2020 that would have allowed retail sales but excluded a home grow option. That organization is also considering plans for its own 2022 measure.

Previously, a 2018 legalization push that did qualify for the ballot was defeated. Voters in the state did approve a measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, though the law was scaled down by the legislature the following year.

While activists are skeptical that the legislature has the appetite to enact the policy change on their own, it is the case that lawmakers may feel increased pressure given that voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana elected to legalize cannabis in November.

Read the new North Dakota marijuana decriminalization bill below: 

North Dakota Decriminalizat… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A 2021 Priority

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Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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A Virginia Senate committee held an initial hearing on Friday on a bill to legalize marijuana that was introduced with support from the governor just two days ago.

The legislation’s quick consideration by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee is an early sign that lawmakers intend to advance it expeditiously. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in a newly formed subcommittee of the panel that’s specifically focused on cannabis policy.

The bill, which is being carried by top Senate and House leaders, would create a system of regulated and taxed marijuana sales and production, and allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature.

After the bill is considered by the new marijuana-focused subcommittee next week, the full Rehabilitation panel is expected to hold a vote next Friday to refer it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. After that panel considers the legislation, it would head to the Finance Committee before coming to the full Senate floor.

At the initial hearing, members heard testimony from a representative of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) administration and asked questions about components of the bill such as those concerning expungements and social equity grants.

The legislation’s provisions have been informed by two official state studies on legalization that were recently conducted by a legislative commission and a separate working group comprised of four Virginia cabinet secretaries and other officials, both of which looked at how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to the governor’s office late last year.

Those studies were required under a marijuana decriminalization bill that was approved last year.

Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into the new legislation, including provisions to promote social equity in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also apportion almost half of the tax revenue the state collects from marijuana sales to funding pre-kindergarten education—a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.

The state’s alcohol regulatory body would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority, and it would be responsible for promulgating rules and issuing licenses.

A new 21 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional three percent tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply on purchases, for a total potential 30 percent tax rate.

Revenue from the new state tax would go toward funding pre-k education (40 percent), a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (30 percent), substance misuse and treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (five percent).


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver, who testified on behalf of the Northam administration on Friday, emphasized that the “keystone of this entire bill is marijuana legalization of a social equity endeavor.”

Advocates have celebrated the bill’s introduction and are optimistic about the prospects of getting the reform enacted this session, but they also feel the legislation as proposed can be improved upon.

One problematic provision from advocates’ perspective is that the bill would make public consumption a misdemeanor, whereas currently it is a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.

Additionally, it seems to increase the fine for people aged 18-20 who possess cannabis. The fine would be $250 for a first offense, and the legislation also stipulates that underage people could be subject to mandatory substance misuse treatment for violating the law.

This introduction of the bill comes one month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for cannabis legalization in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support expungements. Northam had campaigned on merely decriminalizing possession, but he publicly backed broader legalization of marijuana for adult use in November.

Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.

“The administration’s proposal does an excellent job of centering equity and restorative justice, but we are greatly concerned by the proposed rollbacks of newly enacted decriminalization measures and creation of new crimes for consumption and possession,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“Not only would this escalation in criminalization not increase public safety, this will specifically target young, Black, Brown, and poor Virginians, those who are already overwhelmingly and disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “Governor Northam wants to get this right, and NORML will be offering policy guidance to help the administration do just that. It’s time to move forward, not backward, with cannabis policies in the Commonwealth.”

Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) last week.

Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor in October.

Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.

USDA Releases Final Rule For Hemp, Two Years After Crop Was Federally Legalized

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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