Adult-use cannabis has gained steam across the nation as more and more states jump on the legalization train. As of the writing of this article, 23 states have legalized adult-use while another 15 have allowed the sale of cannabis for medicinal purposes, for a total of 38 green states.
Meanwhile, Texas still has stiff penalties for possession. Two ounces or less is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $2,000 to $4,000 if one has between two and four ounces. Possession of more than four ounces is a felony punishable by a $10,000 fine and between 2-99 years in jail. And that’s just for possession.
Quasi-medicinal use was approved with the 2015 Texas Compassionate Use Act, and just for epilepsy, to be only treated by low-THC cannabis oil with a maximum strength of 0.5%. Since then, the number of conditions approved for low-THC treatment has been opened up to terminal cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), seizure disorders, incurable neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s Disease and PTSD. At the same time, the allowable strength of cannabis oil has been increased to a still-minimal 1.0%.
So, what’s holding back the Lone Star State? And what can be done to obtain full legalization for both medicinal and adult-use cannabis? The answers lie within the Texan psyche which has a strong streak of self-reliance in it that has made the state go its own way before. Legalize cannabis just because 75% of the other states have already done so? If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff too?
Texas is the only state to have been its own country. When its leaders declared independence from Mexico in 1836 and General Sam Houston defeated Mexican General Santa Anna later that year, Texas became the Republic of Texas. While many Texans wanted their country to join the United States, the push within the new republic to remain a separate country was strong. It took nine years of heated debates before Texas entered the Union.
Fast forward 178 years to 2023, and many of the heated debates taking place in Texas today revolve around cannabis. Some Texans see the push to legalize adult-use cannabis as a moral issue, and that it is the responsibility of state government to hold the line against what they view as a gateway drug. Others argue cannabis can be beneficial by providing a safe alternative to opioids for pain relief, and that it is already easy to access on the black market.
Several recent cannabis bills: HB 1805, which would have expanded covered medical conditions and defined a per-dose THC limit instead of a percentage limit, and HB 218, which would have decriminalized cannabis, both passed the state House of Representatives in April 2023 but died in the Senate when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the chamber, refused to refer the bills to a state Senate committee for review.
“We’re always listening on the health issues, but we’re not going to turn this into California,” Patrick said in 2021, “where anybody can get a slip from the doctor and go down to some retail store and say, ‘You know, I got a headache today so I need marijuana,’ because that’s just a veil for legalizing it for recreational use.”
The Texas legislature only meets every two years, and the next session is scheduled to begin in January 2025. Since Texas does not have a statewide ballot initiative process, statewide decriminalization and possible passage of adult-use legislation will only be possible then.
Law enforcement has a stronger voice in public policy in Texas than in many other states, and law enforcement organizations have expressed serious reservations about decriminalizing cannabis in Texas. In a joint statement in 2019, the Texas Police Chiefs Association and the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas expressed concerns that legalization would bring increased crime, entice a dangerous black market and lead to increased use of other, more addictive drugs. They also opposed expanding the state’s restrictive medical program until “validated, peer-reviewed medical research shows a proven medical benefit.”
Despite these setbacks, there is a growing groundswell of public support for decriminalizing cannabis as well as for allowing adult-use. A December 2022 poll showed 55% of Texans support legalizing at least small amounts of cannabis for recreational purposes, and another 28% said it should be legal for medicinal purposes.
A February 2023 poll by the University of Houston found that 82% of Texans support the Legislature passing a bill that would allow people to use cannabis for a wide range of medical purposes with a prescription. The belief that cannabis is a “gateway drug” that would make people more likely to use other illegal drugs is losing traction as well – 70% said it would make people less likely to do so or would have no impact.
Voters in some cities passed local ordinances in 2022 decriminalizing cannabis although not all of these ordinances have been implemented by their mayors and city councils. One large city, Austin, passed such a law and is no longer arresting or citing anyone for misdemeanor possession. Other cities, including Dallas, have gone as far as to implement cite-and-release policies, which directs police to ticket someone with less than four ounces of cannabis. Though this policy keeps cannabis possessors from being arrested and detained, they still must appear in court and face the same fines and possible jail time.
These individual city and county efforts to decriminalize cannabis are helping build momentum for eventual statewide decriminalization when the state legislature returns in 2025.
The keys to achieving the goals of state-wide decriminalization and adult-use lie in implementing a multi-pronged approach of changing the public perception of cannabis through education coupled with promoting the economic benefits to the state of increased jobs and tax revenue.
Representative Joe Moody has taken a unique approach to educate lawmakers and Texas citizens. He recently sponsored HB 3652, the Texas Regulation & Taxation of Cannabis Act, in order to start a dialogue on what a retail cannabis market would look like in Texas. Moody received a public hearing in the House Committee for Licensing and Administrative Procedures on April 26, 2023 in which many points about setting up a retail market in Texas were discussed, including a 10% cannabis tax.
Moody didn’t expect the bill to move forward and, in the end, no vote was taken. But that wasn’t his goal. “No cannabis retail market bill has ever gotten a hearing like this in the Texas Legislature,” he told the committee. “The time is coming where this will be the law of the land, and so we might as well get in front of that.”
Many Texans in favor of legalization and the establishment of an adult-use market are optimistic. Recently, 420CPA’s Tara O’Connor attended a meeting of cannabis executives in Dallas. The Texas Cannabis Roundup, billed as “one of the largest gatherings of cannabis business professionals in the South”, was packed with close to 200 people, all there for an evening of good food and drink and to hear speeches on the progress of legalization in the Lone Star State. The mood was upbeat. “People here are really hopeful and energized,” commented Tara afterward. “They really want recreational cannabis to come to Texas.”
In the last analysis, Texans are an independent lot, and they do things their own way. Decriminalization will happen when the people of the Lone Star State are ready to allow it. And whether it’s a fully functioning medicinal cannabis program with an adequate number of dispensaries and a strong enough cannabis product to bring relief to all who need it, or if, in the end, Texas approves adult-use cannabis for its citizens, one thing is for certain: such progress will happen in a time-frame that is right for Texas and in a uniquely Texan way.