Texas marijuana activists prepare for pivotal legislative session

By Brian Bahouth | TUESDAY, JANUARY 17, 2017

The Texas state Legislature began its biennial, 140 day legislative session on Tuesday, and the statewide chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or Texas NORML plans a concerted lobbying campaign to help turn historic pieces of cannabis legislation into laws.

The group has engaged a ranking Texas lobbying firm and will also deploy a team of grass roots lobbyists, and to that end, organizers will hold political advocacy training this Saturday at the state capital in Austin.

Twenty US states and the District of Columbia have to varying degrees decriminalized the limited possession of marijuana, but Texas is not one of them.  A bill passed in 2007 prevents custodial arrest for small busts, but the possession of any amount of cannabis is still a criminal matter in Texas.

Texas lawmakers meet every other year for an action packed 140 day legislative session, so many bills, despite political support and civic need are not considered for lack of time, and so it has been for the decriminalization of cannabis in Texas.  Jax Finkel is the executive Director of Texas NORML.

“Last session Moody (Joe Moody, El Paso) put this bill forward that had 40 co-sponsors and did very well, however we ran out of time.  So this time it was pre-filed, and we hope to see good movement on it again this session with the extra time that we hope that that will give us.”

Another pre-filed bill, HB58 would establish a Marijuana Possession Court, a specialty court based on the principle that first-time defendants are often self-correcting.

Whole plant medical marijuana and adult use legalization:

State Senator José Menéndez has introduced SB269, a bill that would establish a whole plant medical marijuana program in Texas.  Like any bill, SB 269 would need to pass both the Texas House of Representatives and Senate by simple majorities.  Governor Greg Abbot would then have to sign the measure to make it law, but Abbot’s support for a more liberal medical system than the current CBD only Compassionate Use Program(CUP) is uncertain, so Senator José Rodríguez is taking another tack on legalization this session and has pre-filed 2 significant joint resolutions regarding cannabis law.

SJR17 would ultimately allow voters to decide whether the adult possession, use and regulated sale of marijuana should be legalized in Texas, and SJR 18 would allow Texans to decide whether to legalize marijuana for medical use if recommended by a health care provider; but amending the Texas Constitution through direct vote of the people is a demanding and protracted political process that does not require the governor’s approval.  From the Texas NORML website:

Joint resolutions are used to propose amendments to the Texas Constitution and requires a vote of two-thirds of the total membership of each chamber for adoption. A joint resolution takes the same course through both chambers as a bill and is like a bill in all respects, except that, in the house, if it receives the required number of votes at any reading after the first reading, the resolution is passed. Three readings are required to pass a joint resolution in the senate. Joint resolutions passed by the legislature are not submitted to the governor for signing but are filed directly with the Office of the Secretary of State (SOS). The SOS conducts a drawing to determine the order in which the proposed constitutional amendments will appear on the ballot. It is then put on the ballot for the citizens of Texas to vote on in the General Election.

Whether lawmakers use bills or joint resolutions to legalize cannabis in Texas, either road has its challenges.

Activists are waiting to see if a bill to establish a system of adult use legality is forthcoming this session, but again, as with SB 269, the governor has said he does not intend to expand the medical system beyond the limited CUP, so he likely would not authorize cannabis retail stores open to the general adult public.

For Jax Finkel, the fastest way to change the law and help patients in need is with a bill, so she encourages lawmakers, including the Governor, to approve SB269 and broader legalization in general.

“Joint resolutions are made with the higher barrier to pass because of them changing the Constitution, so some argue the bills might be easier to pass this time around, and they would bring relief quicker because they would be implemented immediately, or by their implementation date, instead of having to wait an additional year and a half on the voters.”

Continued strategic advocacy and past victories may well combine to change the political context for cannabis in the 2017 Texas legislature and beyond.  The Texas Compassionate Use Programpassed the House and Senate last session, and Governor Greg Abbot held a signing ceremony.  Jax Finkel says grass roots advocacy work may have changed the Governor’s mind on medical cannabis and possibly the future of bills like SB 269.

“At that time (of the CUP signing ceremony) the governor said he was not going to allow an expansion of the medical marijuana program. He has not reinforced that statement.  Instead he has used a slight changing in his messaging saying that he doesn’t want to have legalization of marijuana.  So I think he’s seeing through the advocacy work and through his support of the Texas Compassionate Use program, that medical cannabis is really a viable option here in Texas.”

Eight US states have legalized the adult possession, use and regulated sale of cannabis, and nearly two thirds of states have medical marijuana laws, so as Texas cannabis activists and lobbyists set out to make thoughtful arguments in support of ground-breaking legislation, lawmakers are as likely as they have ever been to approve a whole plant medical marijuana system and maybe even legalize cannabis for adult use.

More info available here, including an interview with Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML: http://www.marijuanapublicmedia.org/texas-marijuana-activists-prepare-pivotal-legislative-session/