Texas House Overwhelmingly Passes Two Major Marijuana Reforms

Compassionate Cultivation, a medical marijuana dispensary in Manchaca, Texas, in December 2017.
Compassionate Cultivation, a medical marijuana dispensary in Manchaca, Texas, in December 2017.
Photo: Eric Gay (AP)

By large margins, the Texas House passed two bills this week that would create a less punitive legal environment for possession of recreational marijuana and allow more Texans to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program.

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Despite overwhelming support in the lower chamber, the lowered penalties for possession are likely to face a hostile reception from Republicans in the state Senate and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The medical marijuana reform also faces an uncertain future despite near-unanimous support in the House. The opposition to a more permissive stance stands in stark opposition to polling that has demonstrated majority and growing support for outright legalization of small amounts of weed, with one recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll finding 60 percent of voters believe “possession of small or large amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.”

On Thursday, per the Texas Tribune, the House passed Bill 1535, which would expand the state’s medical marijuana program—which currently allows patients with “terminal cancer, intractable epilepsy, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, spasticity, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, or incurable neurodegenerative” conditions—to also allow patients with chronic pain, any cancer, or post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Tribune, just 3,500 patients are currently enrolled in the program, which was established in 2015. The National Conference of State Legislatures ranks it as the 11th hardest of the 47 states with medical marijuana programs for residents to actually participate in.

House Bill 1535 would also increase the THC content of allowed medical marijuana to 5% (up from 0.5%), fixing a strange situation created in 2019, when the state legalized hemp products containing nearly as much THC as the stingy medical maximum. It passed by a 134-12 vote with only the most conservative members of the House in opposition, with no members of the legislature openly opposing it this week or arguing against it earlier this month in committee, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“I am pleased, absolutely pleased,” Jax Finkel, the director of the Texas branch of marijuana-reform org NORML, told KVUE. “This should be a no-brainer for both parties.”

Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy director Heather Fazio told the Tribune that HB 1535 is a “step in the right direction” but doesn’t go far enough, saying it kept in place “an incredibly restrictive cap on THC” and “leaves patients behind who desperately need access to this medicine.”

The House also passed by an overwhelming 88-40 vote a bill that would change possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Texas from a Class B misdemeanor, which can come with a $2,000 fine and 180-day jail sentence, to a Class C misdemeanor with no jail time. HB 441 would also prohibit police in the state from making arrests when no crime is committed but possession of an ounce of weed or less, the Tribune separately reported.

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Patrick, an ultraconservative culture warrior, has not been moved by similar legislation in the past and views relaxation of marijuana laws as a step towards full legalization. He declared a bill similar to HB 441 dead on arrival in 2019 and said it wouldn’t receive a vote in the Senate—even after it was preliminarily approved by a 103-42 vote in the House. According to KVUE, Texas Politics Project at the University of Austin director James Henson says he’s skeptical that even the less controversial HB 1535 will find support in the Texas Senate.

“That has not been enough to persuade, particularly Lt. Gov. Patrick and other of the most conservative Republicans, to move in this direction,” Henson told the network. “But I think as time goes on, pressure builds and the chances begin to look a little bit more likely. It’s not like there’s a groundswell to just open up the doors to marijuana legalization. We’ve seen a lot of evidence that these kind of incremental movements did OK in the House of Representatives, even with the Republican leadership.”

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“The bigger obstacle has always been the Senate, but now that these bills are moving and there’s still a little bit of time left and there’s a lot going on, the Senate is still an obstacle,” he added. “And I think it has yet to feel like, you know, the odds are still at best, even. But it’s something that the bills have moved as far as they have.”

Texas’s inaction on marijuana reform in spite of a massive shift in public opinion has been mirrored on the national level (which frankly is the case with a lot of issues these days). In December 2020, Democrats in the U.S. House pushed a bill that would strip marijuana’s harsh Schedule 1 status from the federal register, allow expungement of convictions back to 1971, and expand access to medical marijuana to veterans to a 228-164 victory. The version of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, died in committee.

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Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, but support for major reform of marijuana laws remains shaky in the Senate, where some more conservative Democrats continue to raise objections and most Republicans continue to balk. President Joe Biden’s only signature action on marijuana laws since taking office in January 2021 has been to fire or suspend dozens of White House staffers over prior marijuana use they had been told would not be a factor in their employment. An April 2021 Pew Research Center poll showed overwhelming 91% support among U.S. adults for either outright legalization (60%) or legal medical use alone (31%). Just 8% of respondents said marijuana use should be illegal for all adults.