Advocates for marijuana legalization are hopeful Texas lawmakers will take up meaningful reform this upcoming 2021 legislative session.
During last week’s general election, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota approved ballot measures allowing recreational marijuana, leaving Texas a member of a shrinking group of states that prohibit the drug.
That could soon change, according to Heather Fazio, the director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. In fact, Roland Gutierrez, who recently won the race for State Senate District 19 and is a former San Antonio City Council member, pre-filed a bill Monday that would legalize cannabis if passed.
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Fazio said a growing number of Texans want to see marijuana-related legislation. According to a Texas Tribune article published in January, 80 percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana in some form.
Here is where Texas stands when it comes to legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Medicinal marijuana is legal but is restrictive. Residents must be accepted into the Texas Compassionate Use Program, which was created in 2015 and expanded in 2019, and allows for low-level THC cannabis products for those who suffer from medical conditions such as epilepsy, seizures, terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, incurable neurological disorders, autism and ALS.
Fazio said advocates are pushing to expand the list of medical conditions, eliminate the THC-level requirements and add more dispensaries.
In Texas, possessing even a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor and can remain permanently on your record, which can hinder your search for employment or housing help. Your driver’s license can also be suspended for six months even if you weren’t driving at the time of the citation, Fazio said.
“Right now it is a harsh and unreasonable policy for marijuana possession,” Fazio said, adding that reforms would allow law enforcement agencies to focus their resources on more serious crimes.
The legalization of hemp products helped reduced the number of possession arrests in 2019, but there were still about 45,000. A law decriminalizing the possession of marijuana would make it similar to a traffic ticket in which there is a fine with no arrest or jail time.
In 2019, the Texas House voted to approve a decriminalization bill, but it stalled in the State Senate.
While legalizing marijuana for recreational use is not as popular among Texans as medicinal cannabis, Texas seems to be “on its way to repealing the prohibition laws,” Fazio said. Advocates argue that legalizing recreational use is more beneficial than keeping it illegal.
“Think of it – it is a lot safer than getting it on the street corner,” Fazio said. “We could instead regulate it and test it to make sure it is safe for people.”
Fazio pointed out that despite “no one in history dying from cannabis,” it is classified as a schedule 1 drug like heroin or meth.
Legalizing marijuana could also be financially beneficial. According to Gutierrez’s website, cannabis could potentially bring in $3.6 billion in Taxes per year.
Because of the pandemic, the Texas comptroller’s office warned that the state’s tax revenues could come in $4.58 billion short of budget estimates. Only one year of revenue from marijuana sales built into the budget cycle would wipe out 25 percent of the short fall, Fazio said.
In states like Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is legal, annual sales tax revenue totaled between $303.5 million and $395.5 million.
Including Gutierrez’s, there were eight marijuana-related pre-bills filed Monday. Among them are two for decriminalization, two for medical marijuana expansion and one on affirmative defense.
During the last session, nearly 63 cannabis bills were introduced.
“We are very excited for this session,” Fazio said. “With the pandemic, it will be interesting to see how the legislation is operating and navigate this new normal. We are going to have to work hard so that we can get testimony heard by the lawmakers.”
If legislators approve any of the marijuana proposals, Texas could see implementation as soon as September 2021.
Taylor Pettaway is a breaking news and general assignment reporter for MySA.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | @TaylorPettaway