The following editorial published in Houston Chronicle on May 13:
States from California to Colorado to Massachusetts have relaxed marijuana laws. They recognize how foolish it is to jam our courts and jails with people caught with small amounts of pot. Some have fully legalized (and taxed) the drug; many others have moved more cautiously and kept it illegal to grow or sell but reduced or removed the criminal penalty for possession.
In Texas? We’re like the last teetotaling holdouts of the Prohibition era. And we’re running out of time to do anything about it as the 2019 Texas Legislature hurtles toward its May 27 close. If you care about modern, commonsense pot policies for Texas, or just about fairness in our criminal justice system, now is the time to call Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott or your Texas senator to demand they not let this opportunity pass.
This session had looked so promising on the pot front. The GOP-led House passed three smart bills with huge, bipartisan vote margins, each vote reflecting Texas’ recent reputation for being not just tough on crime but smart, too. That momentum is now at risk, just because Patrick appears determined to play the role of Dr. No in the Texas Senate.
Texans should demand better.
The three bills are different.
Two passed last week that would expand – one by a lot and the other more conservatively – Texas’ tiny experiment with medical marijuana. Since 2015, some patients have been allowed to buy cannabis seed oil to ease their symptoms. The bolder bill would grow from three to 12 the number of dispensaries that could be approved by the Texas Department of Public Safety and would add many conditions and diseases to those that can be grounds for participating in the program. That bill, HB 1365, co-authored by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, earns our strongest support. But a second, more cautious bill, by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, which the House approved last Tuesday, would also be a step in the right direction. That bill is HB 3703, and it was referred to the Senate Health and Human Services committee Friday.
The medical marijuana expansion would make life better for hundreds, maybe thousands, of Texans who rely on the oil made from cannabis to relieve their symptoms. In April, Marine veteran First Sgt. Arthur Davis, a Houston native with four combat tours, told us that pot was the only thing that has helped with his crippling anxiety attacks. “It’s marijuana. I have my life back,” he said.
Klick’s bill would expand the program she created with 2015 legislation amid concerns about the growing epidemic of deadly overdoses from abuse of painkillers. We supported the program then, when Texas was one of the last states to approve medical marijuana, and support it now. It just needs to be bigger. Too few patients can enroll in the current program, even when the cost of traditional drugs can place treatment out of reach for many.
The third bill is admittedly a bigger step for Texas – but one it only makes sense to take. The House voted 103-42 in favor of HB 63 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, which would virtually decriminalize small-time possession of pot. It builds on experience in Texas’ biggest jurisdictions, where local prosecutors have long argued criminal charges are not appropriate for most cases of pot possession.
Despite that, the number of pot arrests is staggering. In 2017, according to the Department of Public Safety, police across Texas made nearly 25,000 adult arrests for dealing marijuana but more than 64,000 arrests for possessing it. That latter figure was more than the arrests for cocaine, heroin or any other illegal drug. That’s crazy.
Arrests for marijuana are also unfair to people of color, especially African-Americans. Black Texans age 17 and older made up just 11.8 percent of the Texas adult population in 2017, and yet their arrests accounted for 27 percent of the total that year. HB 63 would reduce those arrests, perhaps by thousands.
The Senate needs to stop standing in the way of progress on marijuana reform in Texas. Bills to decriminalize pot and to expand medical exemptions for cannabis oil aren’t radical departures from Texas values. They’re smart, humane and fair solutions that have already been tried and tested in other states. Reform can happen this session. Call Patrick and your local senators and tell them to do the right thing.