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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.

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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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GOP Congressman Falsely Claims Marijuana Can Be Legally Consumed In Public In ‘Many States’

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A Republican congressman wrongly claimed that marijuana can be legally consumed in public in “many states” in a Twitter post on Friday.

Following a House vote in favor of anti-vaping legislation that also included a ban on menthol cigarettes, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) argued that the bill is an example of government overreach and that it would not prevent youth from using vaping products.

“Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states,” he wrote in his tweet. “Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.”

The claim about laws governing public cannabis consumption is likely to raise eyebrows among reform advocates familiar with state-legal marijuana programs.

It’s not the case that “many states” allow individuals to smoke in public areas. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly prohibited activities in legalization measures.

“Rep. Barr is anti-freedom and pro-false hysteria when it comes to cannabis,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Sadly, his desire to continue to see hundreds of thousands of Americans be arrested and incarcerated due to minor marijuana charges is held far too many of his colleagues in Congress.”

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s “facts and priorities are wrong.”

“No legalization state allows public smoking of cannabis (other than in adult-only locations in some cases), and almost all medical cannabis states forbid it,” she said. “Marijuana isn’t associated with increased mortality, while cigarettes are associated with more than 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Why is Rep. Barr maligning and voting against the safer substance, and working to keep it illegal?”

Here are some examples of public consumption policies in legal cannabis states.

Alaska: For adults over 21 years of age, the law permits “consumption of marijuana, except that nothing in this chapter shall permit the consumption of marijuana in public.”

California: “You can consume cannabis on private property but you cannot consume, smoke, eat, or vape cannabis in public places.”

Colorado: “Using marijuana in any way—smoking, eating or vaping—isn’t allowed in public places.”

Illinois: “There is no public consumption allowed for cannabis. Smoking or consuming weed is illegal in motor vehicles and public spaces, including your front porch.”

Massachusetts: “You can’t use marijuana in any form (smoking, vaping, edibles, etc.) in public or on federal land.”

Nevada: “Adults 21 years and older can legally consume marijuana, but with restrictions on where it can be consumed: You cannot use marijuana in any public place.”

Oregon: “Recreational marijuana cannot be sold or smoked in public.”

Put simply, the notion that public consumption of marijuana is widespread is a false narrative. A standout exception is Oklahoma, where medical cannabis patients are able to consume wherever tobacco is permitted. That said, Barr’s assertion that public marijuana smoking is legal in “many states” is patently false.

That the congressman is perpetuating that narrative isn’t especially surprising, however. Barr is no fan on cannabis, voting against spending bill amendments preventing the Justice Department from using its fund to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs as well as a separate measure last year that would’ve extended protections to all state cannabis programs.

That said, Barr isn’t alone in his opposition to the menthol cigarette ban that cleared the House on Friday. Several Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure in committee and on the floor. But their reasoning was generally that the targeted ban would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.

House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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VA Notice About Researching Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans Deleted Shortly After Posting

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will soon release a notice announcing that it is seeking information about the potential of marijuana and its components to treat medical conditions that commonly afflict military veterans.

A post describing the request was briefly uploaded to a government website this week, though it’s since been deleted—but not before Marijuana Moment downloaded a copy. A representative said in response to an e-mailed query that the document was “rescinded for edits” and a revised version will be published “at a future date.”

VA’s Clinical Science Research and Development Service wrote in the filing that it is interested in establishing a research program designed to “examine the potential for medical marijuana and cannabinoids to treat disorders and diseases prevalent in our Veteran population.”

In a request for white papers on the topic, the department said it’s especially interested in identifying potential medical uses for cannabis to treat neuropathic pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Unrelieved neuropathic pain experienced by Veterans after spinal cord or peripheral nerve injury contributes to depression, anxiety, disrupted sleep, and overall decreased quality of life,” VA said. “PTSD, also highly prevalent in Veterans, is a mental health problem often co-morbid with chronic pain.”

“A large percentage of Veterans who seek relief from these conditions, resort to smoking marijuana or use unregulated dietary cannabis supplements, etc,” it continued. “It is therefore imperative to determine which cannabinoid compounds are truly effective, for which symptoms, in which populations, as well as the associated risks.”

VA said it is committed to researching and developing evidence-based treatment options for veterans, and that’s what the program is meant to address.

“Without the needed evidence base for medical marijuana, this will not be a treatment choice within VA,” the department wrote. “We hope to support a series of clinical trials, which in case of positive outcomes, will generate robust data to support the use of cannabinoid(s) for pain and/or PTSD (or one or more of its symptoms).”

The department plans to conduct clinical trials if the evidence indicates that medical cannabis can be useful. It touted the “cadre of experienced clinical investigators, a highly participatory research population, and mechanisms in place to support every aspect of clinical research.”

White papers submitted to VA under the now-deleted solicitation must contain four components: 1) the “formulation and route of administration of the cannabinoid preparation,” 2) their ability to manufacture and supply those preparations, 3) the investigational new drug registration for compounds that aren’t already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and 4) evidence about the product’s efficacy in treating pain, PTSD and other conditions.

As drafted, the notice gives a deadline of March 15 to submit the requested one-page white papers, though it’s not clear if that will change when the updated notice is released.

Additionally, VA said it plans to collaborate with industry partners for “further understanding and development of evidence-based treatments such as medical marijuana and cannabinoids” and on April 27, will hold an “Industry Day” to discuss the “goals of the program.”

The department is “particularly interested in obtaining information about cannabinoid drugs availability, likelihood of their approval by the FDA (if not yet approved), and the data supporting their use for pain and PTSD treatment in Veterans,” the notice says.

Members of Congress and veterans advocates discussed the need for alternative treatment options, including medical cannabis, during a joint committee hearing earlier this week.

At the same time, bipartisan legislators are asking their colleagues to cosponsor a bill that would require VA to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans. That legislation already has 104 House cosponsors.

Read VA’s since-rescinded notice on medical marijuana research below: 

VA Request For Medical Mari… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill

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House Democrats pushed back against a Republican attempt to include a flavored marijuana vaping ban in a broader anti-vaping bill that passed the chamber on Friday, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to prohibit products that are already illegal under federal law.

Instead, several lawmakers argued that Congress should enact separate cannabis reform legislation that could include provisions designed to protect public health and reduce the appeal of marijuana to youth.

The issue first came up during a House Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday, with Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introducing an amendment to “include a prohibition against flavored marijuana products” such that they would be “treated in the same manner as flavored tobacco products” under the bill.

While the congressman argued that language of the legislation implicitly already provides for such a ban, he said it was important to clarify to send a message to young people that they can’t vape products containing nicotine or THC.

“Let it not be said in 2029 that we had a chance and we felt maybe we were getting to it in 2020,” he said. “Let’s just go ahead and do it. Let’s say you can’t sell flavored marijuana THC vaping products. My amendment makes that clear.”

Watch the conversation below: 

Democratic members said they shared Griffith’s concern about underage use of flavored cannabis vaping products. However, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) pushed back and said the proposal is not germane because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and so regulating these products requires separate congressional action.

Earlier in the hearing, he suggested that his House-passed cannabis banking bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—could serve as a vehicle to address the body’s concerns.

“We have to start addressing it because we have 47 states that now are allowing some level of marijuana use when the statute under the Controlled Substance Act clearly makes it illegal,” the congressman said. “There’s a bill sitting in the Senate called the SAFE Banking Act that may get back here at some point, and we could put some testing and regulatory components on it.”

Watch this exchange below: 

Is a flavored marijuana vaping ban even necessary?

Also during the hearing, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) pressed Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) about the lack of specificity in the bill as it concerns marijuana vaping products. Woodall said he wanted that aspect addressed before he leaves office in nine months.

“It strikes me…more than strange that banana crush [nicotine vaping products] will no longer be available to adults in my district. But banana strawberry cream, which is an illegal [marijuana] product today, will continue to be available at 180 retailers near you,” Woodall said. “I don’t know how I take that message into my high schools and say that we’re going to reduce drug dependency in the months and years ahead.”

Watch the conversation below: 

Pallone said he appreciates Woodall’s concern that flavored vaping products can mislead consumers about what they’re actually putting into their bodies and that he “would tend to think that the same problem would exist” for flavored marijuana products. However, he said there’s a distinction to be made.

“Most people tell me that nicotine is much more toxic and much more dangerous to your health than marijuana so maybe we shouldn’t have restrictions on marijuana at all and maybe we shouldn’t have any restrictions on flavored marijuana because the marijuana doesn’t have the same health problems that nicotine has,” he said. “Maybe I should say, assuming that marijuana is dangerous then maybe the flavored should be. But it’s not as dangerous.”

“The reality is that we know that nicotine is much more dangerous than marijuana so maybe the flavors masking it is not as serious a problem as it would be for nicotine,” he said.

Griffith’s amendment was blocked from floor consideration in a party-line vote of 3-6 by the panel, but the conversation around flavored marijuana products continued on Friday on the House floor.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) brought a poster board showing pictures of flavored cannabis vaping products and lamented that they are not explicitly included in the anti-vaping bill.

“If you want to do something about kids—if you want to do something about lung disease—then we need to do something about marijuana and the oils it gets mixed with that this bill does not address,” he said.

But Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) pointed out that if Republicans are interested in ensuring that such marijuana products are properly regulated, the substance needs to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act to provide Congress with the means to enact regulations.

Imposing regulations on marijuana while it’s still federally prohibited is “like regulating flavored heroin,” he said. The congressman added that a bill to deschedule marijuana called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would give lawmakers the tools to protect public health.

“The challenge that we have now is to be able to move forward—to be able to protect young people and the public,” Blumenauer said. “Cannabis is a red herring. If we tax and regulate it, then we can deal with the products they’re talking about. But unless and until we bring it—as two-thirds of the states have done—to actually tax and regulate it, we can’t deal with that. It doesn’t matter.”

Not all Democrats were on board with the anti-vaping bill.

It was a tight 213-195 vote in the House on Friday. Top Democratic leaders are faced challenges as they worked to get the broader legislation approved. Some members of the party have expressed opposition over policies to ban flavored tobacco, including menthol, which they argue would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.

Banning CBD Products Would Be ‘A Fool’s Game,’ FDA Chief Admits

Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay.

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