A frantic push for medical marijuana in Texas, bureaucratic heartbreak and renewed resolve

Originally posted by , The Cannabist Staff on May 16, 2017 here

AUSTIN, Texas — On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 9, Jax Finkel, the executive director of Texas NORML, was frantically trying to find a bill. Somewhere, deep in the catacombs of the Texas state Capitol, House Bill 2107, the first comprehensive medical marijuana bill to clear a committee in the state’s history, was getting shuttled around. It needed to be located immediately. She says, “I was literally walking between offices looking for the cart.”

Just days before, HB 2107 had passed out of the House’s Health Committee by a vote of 7-2. From there, it was a five-step process to move the bill through the system to the Calendars Committee, which would then schedule the bill for a debate and vote on the House floor. Finkel says this process “usually takes three business days, but it can be done in a matter of hours.” At this point, hours were all they had left.

The Calendars Committee met at 5:30 p.m. for a quick five-minute roll call of approved bills, which Finkel livestreamed on Facebook in the hopes HB 2107 would be on the list. It wasn’t. Finally, at 7:30 p.m., the bill arrived, ready for approval. But if the Calendars Committee didn’t reconvene to schedule by 10 p.m., then the bill would crash. And the Legislature wasn’t going to meet again until 2019. Actual human lives hung in the balance of a minor bureaucratic procedure.

It was a political miracle that Texas had even reached this point. In 2015, against most predictions, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law the Compassionate Use Act, a limited and highly restrictive bill that allowed a small number of children with intractable epilepsy access to low-THC cannabis medicine containing non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD). But not only did the law exclude the vast majority of potential medical marijuana patients, and not only did it keep patients from having access to any cannabis products containing THC, it still has yet to be fully implementedStory after story continue to appear in the local and national news about Texas medical marijuana “refugee” families, forced to leave their homes and head to states where medical marijuana is legal so their children could get the treatment they needed.

When it came to medical, most advocates in the Texas marijuana-rights movement didn’t expect much from this legislative session, which ends May 29. They instead turned their attention to decriminalization legislation (HB 81 and companion SB 170) that would establish a system of civil penalties for weed possession, which cleared committee early but then later died on the House floor without a vote.

In the state Senate, José Menendez filed a comprehensive medical bill last November, SB 269, but it has sat dormant in committee as the GOP-dominated body pursued other legislative priorities, like banning sanctuary cities and telling transgendered teens which bathroom to use.

In the House, Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Democrat from Brownsville, saw a political opportunity, and a chance to do some good. After watching a heartwrenching YouTube video in which the Zartlers, a North Texas family, treat their teenage daughter’s severe autism with vaporized cannabis, Lucio III checked to see if a companion medical bill had been filed in the Texas House. It hadn’t. Thus HB 2107 was born. “We filed it right away,” Lucio III tells The Cannabist. “Just based on what I had read, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Lucio III reached out to Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican from Dripping Springs who had shown sympathy toward medical-marijuana reform, to sign on as cosponsor to HB 2107. But it languished in the House for months after it was first filed in mid-February. With the end of the legislative session on the horizon, activists decided that something had to be done quickly.

Speaking to lawmakers’ minds, hearts

In the last week of April, they hastily put together a press conference on the Capitol steps, emphasizing testimony from conservative Christian mothers and veterans with PTSD. “It is God’s plant and he gave it to us for good,” one mom said. Others held signs that said, “Cannabis saves lives.”

Behind the scenes, advocates were also working the phones. The bill’s fate lay in the hands of Walter T. “Four” Price, an outspoken Christian Republican who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Public Health. Three families from his district in Amarillo pressed his office with phone calls, including relatives of a teenager with Crohn’s disease and another family that had recently been forced to move to Trinidad, Colorado, to take care of a young child with epilepsy.

Legislation to allow patients access to whole-plant medical marijuana progressed further than it ever had in Texas in 2017. (Denver Post file photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Says Heather Fazio, the Texas political director of The Marijuana Policy Project: “We wanted him to see that it’s not just Austin that wants medical marijuana. There are even people in Amarillo.” On April 27, Price scheduled HB 2107 for a hearing.

Because of scheduling conflicts, that hearing didn’t begin until almost 10 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2, and it ran into the early hours of the morning. Yet the Public Health Committee stayed riveted as advocates ran through an extraordinary series of testimonies, the Texas Observer reported. Doctors and medical researchers testified about marijuana’s vast potential as a medicine. One after another, constituents presented a series of tragic stories that would have broken Scrooge’s heart. The politicians heard from disabled veterans, desperate mothers and fathers, the sick, the sad, the dying, people in pain. At one point, HB 2701 cosponsor Isaac, who’s not on the committee but was there in support, had to step off the dais to grab some tissues. Few dry eyes were left in the room by the time the hearing ended.

Word got around the House fast. “Some hearts were changed on that night because of the reality of what families and veterans were going through,” says Terry Franks, Isaac’s chief of staff. “It hit them hard. I don’t think they realized what an important issue this is for folks.”

Lucio III credited the activists, who have been working tirelessly to change people’s minds. “These advocates have been reaching out to these members, sharing their hearts, talking about the difference in quality of life,” he says. “People had already been educated. I was just the one to execute it.”

Then Price, even though he’d voted against the Compassionate Use Act in 2015, scheduled HB 2107 for a committee vote for Friday, May 5. He voted against this bill, too, but it sailed out of committee on a 7-2 vote. “Allowing that to happen makes Representative Price a hero,” Fazio says. “He demonstrated incredible professionalism, and we value that.”

The nail-biting began. Could HB 2107 make it through the bureaucratic process in time? “We don’t see anyone on the Calendars committee who would have an opposition to this bill,” Lucio III says in a phone call from the House floor after the bill cleared the committee. “But the timing is not our friend.”

Over the weekend, advocates were in overdrive, calling, emailing, pleading. Out of nowhere, whole-plant medical cannabis had an upset chance to become the law in Texas, prompting an early response: “Rejoice!” Finkel posted on the Texas NORML Facebook page.

At 7:30 p.m. on May 9, as HB 2107 officially arrived at the Calendars Committee office, Isaac desperately called for a point of order on the House floor, asking that the committee quickly convene. The House, which was busy debating (and eventually approving) a bill to allow state-funded adoption agencies to reject applications from LGBT, Jewish, and Muslim families, didn’t hear his plea. By 10 p.m., the dream was dead.

“We will continue to fight”

A visibly disappointed Lucio III and Isaac recorded a hasty video (watch below), saying that they would continue to fight on for the families and veterans of Texas. “In this time of divisive politics,” they wrote in a letter to grieving supporters, “we have found bipartisan agreement that the well-being of our loved ones suffering from debilitating conditions should rise over the fray of Left and Right. … We will continue to fight for the patients suffering in Texas who could benefit from medical cannabis.”

Lucio III and Isaac both stressed that in 2019, a medical cannabis law would be their top priority from Day One of the legislative session, which could prevent further bureaucratic tragedy. This assumes that they’re re-elected, as every Texas House member has to run every two years. In an interview, Lucio III says: “My level of commitment has grown significantly. It’s become a labor of love. My wife keeps saying, ‘This should be your legacy work, to help these families.’”

Meanwhile, activists are going to have to spend another legislative session looking to gain rights that, by 2019, likely will be commonplace throughout much of the country. Heather Fazio says it’s “going to be a campaign issue.”

“People want someone’s head on a pitchfork,” Texas NORML’s Finkel said after the bill’s demise. “They are frustrated and angry. And you know what? They should be. They are dying. It’s awful. But they’re going to have to get involved during the full cycle…We finally find this bipartisan bill that so many people could agree on, and it was too late.”

Video by Rep. Jason Isaac and Rep. Eddie Lucio III after HB 2107 failed to get to the House floor for debate and vote:

Richardson family continues push to expand medical marijuana use in Texas

Originally posted by Marie Saavedra for WFAA on May 16, 2017 here

RICHARDSON — If you saw their video, we doubt you’ve forgotten it.

In late February, the parents of Kara Zartler took a risk by publicly posting a video showing their daughter’s symptoms at their worst. They did it to show what happened next. It’s Kara, being calmed by vaporized cannabis.

The clip was seen by millions on Facebook.
“Oh it was really crazy,” said mom Christy Zartler.
3 months later, they’re taking stock of their decision.
“I didn’t expect the volume of people that said ‘Woah, our child’s just like yours,'” said Mark Zartler, Kara’s father.
“There was no intent of removing Kara from the home, which I was very pleased,” said Christy.
They say that CPS case is now closed. From there, they pushed for House Bill 2107, expanding the access of patients with debilitating illnesses to use medical marijuana.
The Zartler’s were back and forth to Austin several times to campaign for the bill to be put on the legislative calendar. Even with bipartisan support, they learned last week it wouldn’t be heard this session.
“The first 24 hours I was crying, I was upset,” said Christy. “Then, I don’t know, the next day after I slept on it, I felt like we have so much more to do.”
The next session is in 2019, and the Zartler’s feel their odds of getting a bill heard will only get better. Until then, they’ll keep building on the momentum gained by their personal moment that became a public plea.
“I would do it again,” said Mark, of sharing the video publicly. “It’s worth kind of making a stand about something.”

© 2017 WFAA-TV

 

Crowds march to remove stigma of medical marijuana

Originally Posted by Nicole Rosales for  KVUE  on May 15, 2017 here

AUSTIN, Texas — In order to remove the stigma of medical marijuana, crowds marched through Austin Saturday as a part of the 10th annual Marijuana March.

Dave Wieneche, the group’s athletics director said we’re constantly losing Texans because they need the drug for medical reasons.

“Or they’re just passing away because they can’t afford their medicine, or because the pharmaceuticals they’re taking are deteriorating their bodies,” he said.

They hope by focusing on marijuana law reform, families can have better access to healthcare.

Holding signs and chanting, the march began at Austin City Hall and trailed through Downtown before it ended at the steps of the Texas State Capitol.

Speakers such as Amanda Berard, a pediatric caregiver, said she witnessed the pain of young children prescribed opioids.

“The autonomy of these patients are completely stripped away and there’s not even a conversation about options,” Berard said.

Eric Espionza, born with cerebral palsy and an active marijuana user, said although three bills related to cannabis legalization have failed, the fight isn’t over.

“The next two years are vital for us. We need you to be the voice you said you would be for us and stand for us when we cannot,” Espionza said.

House Bill 2017, which would have given patients access to whole plant medical marijuana, did not make it onto the calendar in time to be heard by the House.

House Bill 81 would decriminalize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana or less and turn it into a civil offense. That died in the House without any votes this week.

The next opportunity to pass legislation will come in 2019 when the Texas legislature meets again. Until then, there are already 29 states which have passed medical marijuana laws.

 

© 2017 KVUE-TV

DPS draws fire on medical marijuana licensing

Originally posted by Ileana Najarro on May 13, 2017 for Houston Chronicle here

Shortly after the Texas Legislature authorized limited use of medical marijuana in 2015 to treat people with intractable epilepsy, the Department of Public Safety’s chief financial officer projected the agency would need to license 12 dispensaries to meet the needs of some 150,000 people across the state who suffer from the condition.

Two weeks ago, DPS granted conditional approval for just three, frustrating families that were counting on easy access to the low-THC strain of cannabis as well as several Texas companies looking to enter the industry.

Patty Bates-Ballard, who lives near Dallas, worries the state just made it more difficult for her 14-year-old son to get the drugs that could soothe his daily seizures. She was speechless when she learned that neither of the state’s largest cities, Houston and Dallas, will have a dispensary. Two were approved in Austin and one in the small town of Schulenburg 80 miles away.

“They are negligent in what they are doing,” Bates-Ballard said. “They are blocking us from getting the medication we need for our son.”

Forty other companies, including one in Houston with ties to the Texas Medical Center, were denied licenses. Several of those say they are looking at ways to fight back. They claim DPS is barring patients’ access to needed medicine and question the integrity of the licensing process.

Critics, including nonprofit groups representing the medical cannabis industry, worry DPS is undermining the state’s fledgling efforts to provide medical marijuana.

“This program should never have gone to a law-enforcement agency,” said Keith Oakley, CEO of the Medical Cannabis Association of Texas. “This should have been given to the Department of Health.”

The Compassionate Use Act, signed into law in 2015, mandated that DPS license at least three companies that would cultivate and dispense low-THC cannabis for patients with intractable epilepsy. It granted rule-making authority of the Compassionate Use Program to DPS.

Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, called that approach unusual.

“Most other states either regulate through a public health agency, a specially created commission, or some combo of agencies like public health, pharmacy and agriculture,” West wrote in an email. “Colorado is a little different, in that it houses marijuana regulation within the Department of Revenue, but it still isn’t law-enforcement-regulated.”

Ranking system a surprise

DPS declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the licensing process is ongoing. Final approvals must be granted by Sept. 1.

In emailed responses to questions, an agency spokesman cited a “statutory requirement that the department license no more than the number necessary to provide reasonable statewide access and availability.”

The spokesman also said DPS had reviewed compassionate-use programs in other states and determined three dispensaries would be sufficient.

Eight DPS employees ranked applicant companies on specific factors, including technological capacity, security measures and cover letters. Should any of the currently approved licensees fail upcoming site inspections, DPS will replace them with the applicant that ranked next on the list.

“Rules were developed through research on other states’ programs and input from legislators, state agencies, stakeholders, and the general public,” DPS said in the email.

Patrick Moran, founder of Texas Cannabis and the nonprofit Texas Cannabis Industry Association, said he and others who were denied a license did not know about the ranking system when they applied. He said they first heard of the rankings when DPS released its list of approved licenses.

Initially, Moran said, DPS had informed companies their applications would be reviewed as a whole, not in discrete sections assessed individually. As applications started coming in, the agency said representatives from other state agencies with expertise in agriculture and health would assist in the review process.

Moran and others complain that after all the applications were filed, DPS reverted back to an in-house-only review.

Members of the review panel have expertise in finance, security, fire safety, information technology and laboratory analysis, the DPS spokesman said. The agency also said rule changes were implemented as required by law, with comment periods and publication in the Texas Register.

It was in a September 2015 Texas Register entry that DPS Chief Financial Officer Suzy Whittenton said the state would likely issue 12 licenses, all to small businesses, including “four micro businesses.”

Regarding patient access, DPS said it would allow the dispensing organizations to set prices and determine how their employees would deliver the medication.

That, too, raised concerns.

“What we have is a system that will inevitably mean higher prices,” said Franklin Snyder, a Texas A&M University law professor who studies the legal marijuana industry.

Snyder applauded DPS for allowing out-of-state companies to apply, but many frown upon that decision. While 37 Texas-based companies applied, two of the three licenses went to companies based in Georgia and Florida. The other was granted to a company called Compassionate Cultivation.

A pair of Austin-based personal injury lawyers are listed as having an ownership stake in Compassionate Cultivation, but a company spokesman declined to provide information on the rest of the company’s leadership including details on the group’s chief medical officer.

Texas firms at a disadvantage

Scott Bier, CEO of Houston-based applicant Green Well, said many Texas companies were at a disadvantage competing against groups from states that already have legalized medical marijuana.

“They have punished small business in Texas,” Bier said.

Moran said that disadvantage could worsen if Texas doesn’t expand the Compassionate Use Program. Nationally, the industry is projected to be worth $7.7 billion in 2021. Delay will help only established national brands, what Moran calls “big marijuana.”

Even Texas applicants with experience abroad lost out. Houston-based Indoor Harvest has for years provided infrastructure for a Canadian medical marijuana company. For its Texas license application, the Houston group noted its current joint venture with Alamo CBD in San Antonio and Vyripharm Biopharmaceuticals housed in the Texas Medical Center.

The group scored a 76.9 out of a possible 100, ranking No. 16 on the DPS list. The top three companies scored between 89.6 and 93.6.

“We are moving into Colorado now,” said Chad Sykes, chief innovation officer for Indoor Harvest.

Other shut-out companies, including Green Well, indicated they, too, would cross state lines. They may be joined by more patients and families.

“There’s nothing much we can do except perhaps break the law if we stay in Texas,” Bates-Ballard said.

Michael Knight from Conroe has a 21-year-old son who was diagnosed with epilepsy three years ago. Although he doesn’t qualify under the current Texas program, his family had hoped the state program would be expanded this legislative session to include patients with conditions other than intractable epilepsy.

After a House bill to do that just failed, Knight decided he may move his family to Colorado, perhaps over the objections of his son.

“He doesn’t want to leave,” Knight said. “He’s got friends here.”

Texas Marijuana Policy Reform: Well fought, but beat by the clock…

Compassionate use and penalty reduction bills run out of time to advance. Let us thank those who stood for sensible policy.

 Our Texas Legislature convenes for only 140 days every other year. This session, we made tremendous strides forward toward more sensible marijuana policies in Texas. Unfortunately, the legislation we’ve been supporting didn’t make it before clock struck midnight last night, the deadline for House bills that have passed committee to be voted on in the House.

Please consider sending a quick thank you note to the legislators who championed marijuana law reform.

There is one final way for us to see reform this session: amendments. Many bills are still in play at the Texas Capitol. We’re working to identify bills that can be amended to include language that would change Texas’ marijuana laws in a meaningful way. Keep an eye out for action alerts if/ when this happens.

You can find a full summary of each marijuana policy-related bill here.

And, here’s a breakdown of what happened with the two bills that gained the most traction — HB 81, Chairman Joe Moody’s bill to reduce penalties for low-level possession to a civil fine and HB 2107, Rep. Eddie Lucio III’s bill to make the Compassionate Use Program more inclusive:

HB 81, Chairman Joe Moody’s bill to reduce penalties for low-level possession, was advanced by the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on April 3 with a vote of 4-2. Unfortunately, Chairman Todd Hunter and the Calendars Committee declined to schedule the bill for a vote until the very last day possible, giving it little chance of making the deadline.

HB 2107, Rep. Eddie Lucio III’s bill to make the Compassionate Use Program more inclusive, earned the support of a majority of the Texas House of Representatives, with 77 Democrats and Republicans signing on as co-authors. This happened after an outstanding hearing where the committee heard testimony from witnesses ranging from mothers of sick children to a retired judge sharing the story of a family in his neighborhood that is illegally healing a toddler living with terminal disabilities. In spite of his own opposition to the bill, Chairman Four Price demonstrated exemplary character by bringing the bill up for a vote, which resulted in its passage with a supportive vote of 7-2 by the committee members.

Regrettably, the bill made it to the Calendars Committee just 1.5 hours too late, keeping it from being scheduled for a vote in the Texas House where it would have surely passed, thanks to the 77/150 co-authors of the bill.

While there certainly is cause for us to be disappointed, lawmakers and advocates alike worked hard this session and brought about unprecedented progress. Our work continues until session ends and then during the 18-month interim.

We won’t let up the pressure until Texas has an inclusive medical cannabis law and stops criminalizing marijuana consumers! We hope you won’t either.

Onward!

Texas’ Marijuana Policy May be Progressing Quicker Than Expected

 

As a nationwide trend of ballot initiatives calling for an end to marijuana prohibition for both recreational and medical users took hold in 2015, the Texas Legislature began work on Senate Bill 339, which would eventually become the Texas Com­pas­sionate Use Act. The state law, effective June 2015, allows for the use of cannabidiol (CBD) only by intractable epileptics who’ve had the drug prescribed by their own doctors. Texas’ “low THC, high CBD” legislation was a version of one getting adopted elsewhere, by other state legislatures not wanting to deny patients access to medicine that works for them but also not ready to go full Colorado, either. The law is particularly narrow: It opened use to sufferers of only one cannabis-treated condition, and mandated that CBD be “prescribed” instead of the much less legally problematic “recommended.” But however restrictive, the CUA’s passage gave medical marijuana its start in Texas.

Ongoing federal prohibition of cannabis means that state rules exist within their own ecosystems. Controlled substances can’t cross state lines, so any state providing for legal use has to somehow provide for legal production and distribution. An early revision of SB 339 dropped a requirement that the cannabis from which legal CBD oils is derived be cultivated only by nonprofit entities. That type of supply model is commonly found in the marijuana policies of early adopter “medical use only” states such as New Mexico and Arizona. States in which all adults are allowed to use pot have all developed (or are in the late stages of developing) rules that allow cultivation, processing, and distribution by commercial entities. Texas’ Compassionate Use Act planned a CBD market that was to be supplied by for-profit businesses. To that end, 43 organizations applied to the Department of Public Safety for cannabis production and distribution license consideration (“Want to Sell Cannabidiol in Texas?,” March 24). The CUA required many of the same conditions of their applicants as more liberal states require of commercial entities applying to grow traditional marijuana: strict on-site security, product tracking through RFID chips, plans for recalls when necessary, and production limits, among other restrictions.

Last September, as DPS bureaucrats prepared to license three of the 43 applicants, DPS field teams executed raids at the four People’s Pharmacy locations in Austin, seizing cannabis oil – high in CBD but low in THC – being sold to intractable epilepsy sufferers and anyone else who wanted to buy it over the counter. Presumably, DPS reasoned that since it had yet to grant any licenses for CBD production, processing or distribution, the oil was being illegally trafficked. The Texas Hemp Industries Assoc­i­a­tionreplied with a press release explaining that the 2014 Farm Act (federal legislation allowing for the production and sale of industrial grade hemp) was written to exclude cannabis matter containing psychoactive THC, which could be interpreted as a de facto legalization of all other parts of the plant; including CBD-rich, THC-free oils. DPS returned the seized oil to the pharmacies in October.

Once California awards its first commercial licenses in January, Texas will be the largest state in the union without a policy providing for safe, regulated commercial production of the kind of weed that’s sold in dime bags. Meanwhile, however, the state has created a regulatory process that is materially the same as the ones in states where weed is legal for all adults. That process exists to give a very narrow set of medical cannabis users (about 1% of the total population suffers from epilepsy) access to nonpsychotropic CBD oils that may not require regulation at all.

Could this bizarre set of circumstances actually bring Texas closer to legalized pot? The three companies awarded cultivation licenses on Tuesday – Surterra TexasCom­passionate Cultivation, and Cansort­i­um Texas – will be asked to each pay a license fee of $488,520 to operate facilities with Fort Knox-level security, staffed by highly bondable talent and insured by ironclad policies, all for the “exclusive” right to produce and dispense a product widely available wherever fine essential oils are sold, and over the internet. In that context, an expansion of the Compassionate Use Act to include THC-rich cannabis for use by other types of patients would certainly be appreciated, and may in fact be needed to make those licenses commercially viable.

Last Tuesday, as DPS awarded its licenses to produce, process, and dispense CBD oil to three companies under a medical use act that appears to be unnecessary because of a federal law, members of the Arcview Investment Group packed a ballroom at UT’s AT&T Conference Center for a convention featuring smaller start-ups hoping to take a toehold in the burgeoning American cannabis sector. Only two of the exhibiting companies were actual cultivation, processing, and dispensing organizations. The opportunities being offered to institutions and accredited individuals right now are mostly in ancillary marijuana businesses like lighting and fertilizer, in-dispensary ad networks, and industry-specific data analytics. Investors in attendance carried a rosy outlook for the young sector. Cannabis cultivators and processors are known for very strong top-line revenue, and early adopter states are showing strong year-over-year growth.

A spokesperson for Surterra – the only Texas licensee with a listed website, phone number, and public-facing profile (both CC and CT are incorporated behind registered agents) – told the Chronicle that the widespread availability of CBD oil hasn’t changed their plans to operate in Texas. Its primary operations are in Florida (as is Cansortium’s), whose “low THC, high CBD” medical marijuana law was the template upon which Texas’ law was written. The 2014 Florida law opening up medical cannabis was amended by voters in 2016 to make full-THC forms of cannabis available to Floridians suffering from an expanded list of medical conditions, including HIV, PTSD, cancer, and MS.

The newly licensed growers and dispensaries would have been able to sell medicine containing THC in Texas if the numerous, vocal supporters of this session’s HB 2107 had gotten their way. The bill, written to remove THC restrictions, turn “low THC” marijuana into “medicinal marijuana,” and expand the list of conditions for which cannabis can be used legally with a doctor’s recommendation, removing language requiring it to be “prescribed,” gained unprecedented bipartisan support, with 77 sponsors and co-sponsors, including 29 Republicans, before dying this week, just before it could hit the full House floor.

HOUSE BILL 81: Texas bill to decriminalize pot advances but faces midnight deadline

Originally posted by KATEY PSENCIK  on May 11, 2017 for Austin-American Statesman here

A proposed law that would reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana in Texas to below that of most traffic tickets could come up for a historic vote by the Texas House on Thursday — if a jammed House calendar and the glacial pace of the legislative process doesn’t kill it first.

House Bill 81, which would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil, not criminal, offense, faces a deadline of midnight Thursday to be given initial consideration on the floor of the full House or, like most House-originated bills, it’s dead.

The two main sponsors of the bill — state Reps. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs — voiced skepticism Wednesday that the bill will be taken up by the midnight deadline because of the crowded House schedule. Still, they applauded that the bill managed to make it onto the calendar of the full House at all.

“This is a big deal in a state that a few years ago wouldn’t even consider these (marijuana-related) bills in committee,” said Moody, who sponsored a similar decriminalization bill last session that cleared a committee but never made it onto the House calendar for consideration.

Texas Action Alert: HB 81 is scheduled for a vote — deadline for passage is midnight!

Call your representative now in support of HB 81!

Chairman Joe Moody’s House Bill 81 has been co-authored 40 representatives, both Democrat and Republican, from across the state. It’s scheduled for a vote late tonight, so your representative needs to hear from you now!

Please make a moment to make the call. Then, send a quick email to reiterate your support for this important legislation.

If passed, HB 81 could protect as many at 70,000 Texans (annually) from being arrested and prosecuted for low-level marijuana possession. Not only does it remove the threat of arrest and jail time, the bill also ensures a path for individuals to avoid a criminal record and the collateral consequences that come along with it.

The Legislature is embarrassingly behind on their agenda. If HB 81 is put forward for a vote, it will be very late tonight. The deadline for passage is midnight. You can watch the proceedings here.

Please call and then email your representative in support of House Bill 81!

Texas House to Vote on Decriminalizing Marijuana on May 11 [HB 81]

Originally posted by   on May 10, 2017 for Heavy here

On Thursday, May 11, the Texas House is taking a historic step by voting on decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill would reduce possession charges from jail time to a misdemeanor in certain cases. This will be the first time sentencing reform has been debated on the House floor since 1973. The vote comes two days after proponents of a Texas medical marijuana bill learned that the Calendars Committee had not scheduled the bill for a vote, despite its having bipartisan support.

Here’s what you need to know.


With HB 81, People Who Possess One Ounce or Less of Marijuana Would Only Be Fined

HB 81, which the Texas House votes on Thursday, changes the penalties for marijuana possession in Texas. A person found to possess one ounce or less of marijuana would no longer be subject to a Class B misdemeanor, jail time of up to 180 days, and a $2,000 fine. Instead, possession of one ounce or less would now be a civil penalty, subject to a fine of no more than $250 and no arrest. In addition, if a person is indigent, they can substitute up to 10 hours of community service for the fine. The identity of any person receiving a citation would remain confidential.

You can read the proposed amended law here. It reads, in part:

Sec. 481.1211. CIVIL PENALTY: POSSESSION OF SMALL AMOUNT OF MARIHUANA. (a) A person who knowingly or intentionally possesses a usable quantity of marihuana in an amount that is one ounce or less is liable to the state for a civil penalty not to exceed $250. (b) The imposition of a civil penalty under this section is not a conviction and may not be considered a conviction for any purpose.

HB 81 cleared committee on April 3 with a 4-2 bipartisan vote, indicating there is potential bipartisan support for this bill.

Retired Texas District Court Judge John Delaney said in a statement: “Passing HB 81 would free up police resources and relieve jails, courts and taxpayers of substantial expense and time demands. Each marijuana arrest uses about 2.5 hours of police time. With 60,000-70,000 people arrested in Texas annually, this is a significant amount of police time that could be devoted to patrolling residential neighborhoods and business locations and responding to emergency calls.”


Texans Can Voice Their Support By Contacting Their Representatives

Proponents of the bill are urging residents to call their representatives, especially since the medical marijuana bill appears to have died an early death. You can find the name of your Texas representative here or you can contact them via a marijuana policy activist site hereThe Texas Tribune reported in February that recent polls show that over 83 percent of Texans support some form of marijuana legalization, with 53 percent supporting possession for any use, not just medical.

Meanwhile, a companion bill in the Texas Senate — SB 170 — is also making progress. It was referred to the criminal justice committee in January. It must still be voted out of committee and then voted on by the Senate.

A group is also organizing a meetup at the Texas State Capitol tomorrow to show support for the bill. Learn more here.

HB 81 is a bipartisan bill authored by Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs.)


A Popular Medical Marijuana Bill, HB 2107, Was Not Put on the Calendar for a Vote Despite Bipartisan Support

 

Meanwhile, a very popular medical marijuana bill that had garnered bipartisan support appears to have died after the Calendars Committee failed to schedule it for a vote. Part of the reason may have been because it took the House Committee on Public Health until May to vote it out of committee in the first place, leaving the bill far behind others in the schedule. According to Texas Observer, the bill was “bottled up in the health committee for most of the session by Representative Four Price, the Republican chair of the committee.”

HB 2017 had a huge support base, with 77 of the 150 House members signed on as co-authors, meaning it likely would have won approval in a full House vote if it had only been added to the schedule.

Christy Zartler, member of Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, told My Statesman: “It is inhumane to let the patients of Texas wait any longer. The time to pass medical cannabis in Texas is now.”

Rep. Todd Hunter, who chairs the Calendars Committee, had said on Monday that it would be difficult to get the bill on the full House calendar because he hadn’t received all the paperwork from the Public Health Committee, My Statesman reported. NORML, a marijuana advocacy group, wrote in April that Hunter has supported marijuana reform in the past, including vote for the Compassionate Use Act and a bill from Rep. Simpson to regulate marijuana like jalapeños. He also voted for HB 81 when it was at the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Requests to speak to Hunter about the current status of both bills haven’t yet been answered.

Here’s a video from Rep. Jason Isaac and Rep. Eddie Lucio III when it became clear that the medical marijuana bill was not going to be added to the calendar:

Although the medical marijuana bill does not seem to have a chance anymore, despite overwhelming support, marijuana activists still believe there’s a good chance for HB 81 and are turning their attention in that direction for Thursday.

In Texas, It’s Do or Die Time for Cannabis Decriminalization

Originally posted by Stephen Paulsen on May 10, 2017 for Leafly here

Marijuana reform is gaining major momentum in Texas this week, as the state House of Representatives looks set to vote Thursday on House Bill 81, which aims to decriminalize personal cannabis possession statewide.

If passed, the bill would radically change the way the state punishes low-level marijuana offenders. As it stands, Texans caught with even small amounts of marijuana can face six months in jail, $2,000 in fines and a permanent criminal record. The law would replace those stiff punishments with a $250 fine for possession of an ounce or less.

The law follows a push for leniency in some of Texas’s biggest cities:

  • In March, Harris County, which covers almost all of Houston, stopped arresting people for possession of less than four ounces. People caught with marijuana can now avoid court by attending a four-hour “marijuana diversion program.”
  • In April, Dallas announced a program known as “cite-and-summons.” Starting in October, the Dallas Police Department will issue court summons to minor marijuana offenders, rather than arresting them on the spot.

Decriminalization is only part of the story. Another law—this one to fix Texas’s broken medical-marijuana program—is also doing surprisingly well. It moved out of committee on Monday and now appears almost certain to pass in the Texas House of Representatives.

Why the sudden change?

Part of it is local politics. By some measures, Houston—the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the nation—is getting dramatically more liberal. In 2012, Obama carried Harris County by just 971 votes. Last November, Clinton took it by more than 160,000.

Last year Harris County voters also threw out their incumbent sheriff and district attorney, both Republicans. Their Democratic challengers won by promising reform on a number of fronts, including marijuana and immigration.

Kim Ogg, the new District Attorney of Harris County, defeated incumbent Devon Anderson by over 100,000 votes. During the campaign, Ogg promised she would “stop wasting time arresting those in possession of small amounts of marijuana.”

Ed Gonzalez, a former Houston city councilmember, replaced Ron Hickman, the Republican incumbent sheriff. Although Gonzalez campaigned primarily on immigration reform—in February, he stopped cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials—he’s also proven friendly to marijuana decriminalization.

Still, it would be wrong to attribute all the changes to Democrats winning elections. Last year, Democrats gained five seats in the Texas House of Representatives. But Republicans still maintain a powerful majority there, 95 to 55.

And yet over the past two legislative sessions Texas lawmakers introduced 24 bills to reform state marijuana laws. “We’ve never seen that many [marijuana reform] bills introduced before,” Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for the Texas branch of the Marijuana Policy Project, told me over the phone.

More important than Democrats winning elections, Fazio says, is the fact that Republicans are changing their tune on cannabis. Interestingly, this shift isn’t coming from the center. Some of the most supportive politicians are what Fazio calls “very, very conservative”—Republicans with an evangelical and/or libertarian bent, who increasingly see marijuana laws as an intrusion into personal liberty and the doctor-patient relationship.

Last year, Texas Republicans added medical marijuana reform to the official party plank. “Lawmakers are looking at the pulse of Texas,” Fazio said, “We’ve seen incredible activism coming from unlikely sources. It’s that kind of professionalism, coupled with humanizing the issue, that’s really moving things along.”

Recent polling supports this theory. 68% of Texans now support decriminalizing cannabis, according to a poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. Nationwide, Republican support for full-on marijuana legalization has shot up 17% since early 2015, from 28% to 45%, according to polls by YouGov.

In the most recent poll, taken in July 2016, 42% of Republicans said they opposed legalization—meaning that, for the first time since YouGov started asking the question, a majority of Republicans now favor legalization marijuana not only for medical users, but for recreational ones as well.

Another sign of the changing political climate comes from Texas’s long and drawn-out fight over medical marijuana.

In 2015, State Representative Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) and former State Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) sponsored the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing medical marijuana in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, signed it.

But the law created one of the worst medical marijuana programs in the nation. It imposed strict limits not only on THC, but on CBD as well. It only served people with severe epilepsy. And perhaps most damningly, it also required doctors to “prescribe” marijuana. As I reported in February, there’s no such thing as a marijuana prescription.

Since then, Texas cannabis advocates have been trying to fix these problems. Until now, those efforts have gone nowhere. State Senator Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) introduced a bill last year to fix the prescription language and remove the THC caps. But by January, the bill had stalled in the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services, never to make it out.

Since then, something has changed. HB 2107, a nearly identical bill, has been sailing through the Texas House with four Republican sponsors.

By the time it made it out of committee, it had picked up 77 co-signers, many of them Republicans. If those co-signers vote yes, as they presumably will, HB 2107 will have enough votes to pass.

The bills will need to be voted on by the end of the week if they are to stand a chance of moving to the Senate before the legislative session ends later this month. And even the new medical marijuana bill isn’t perfect: It doesn’t allow patients to grow their own medicine, and provides no protections for parent caregivers who want to treat their children with cannabis.

Still, Texas cannabis advocates are getting excited. Marijuana reform has been gaining a momentum never before seen in the state. To put pressure on reticent lawmakers, MPP has been running ads in support of reduced marijuana penalties.

The advertisement, first aired last Friday, features a 23-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department named Nick Novello. “Arresting people for marijuana possession does not make our communities any safer,” he says in the ad. By the looks of it, more and more Texans are starting to agree with him.

Grassroots Action for Legislative Reform