In the past, the restrictive cannabis laws in southern states have been consistent with the region’s reputation for conservative politics. But southern cannabis lovers are beginning to make some headway. Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia have all legalized medical cannabis, and headway towards medical legislation is slowly but surely being made in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, where a large majority of voters approved medical cannabis but were struck down by the courts. But the shifting national attitude has done little to sway the hardliners in the Texas legislature, who are reluctant to move beyond legalizing any cannabis products besides hemp. What are the next steps for the Texas cannabis industry in the long road toward legalization?
Don’t mess with Texas cannabis laws
Historically, Texas has led the nation in draconian cannabis laws. In 1915, El Paso became the first US city to outlaw cannabis. Until 1973, possession of any amount of cannabis could be punished with life in prison. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “of the 116 people in Texas serving life sentences for drug possession, seven were convicted of possessing between one and four grams.” Convictions were spurred by a vindictive prosecutors’ culture. As the report put it, “Particularly in Texas… prosecutors did more than simply pursue these cases — they often selected the highest charges available and went after people as hard as they could.”
Though 1973’s House Bill 447 walked back the state’s extremest stance, people caught in possession of over two ounces continue to be sentenced to hard time. In 2015, recreational cannabis legislation was proposed by Rep. David Simpson (R), who is quoted as saying “I don’t believe that when God made marijuana, he made a mistake that government needs to fix.” Though the legislation was approved by the Texas Jurisprudence Committee, it was shot down before it could reach the House floor. Still, cannabis proponents saw the legislation as a glimmer of change on the horizon.
Increasingly, the tough-on-cannabis approach is becoming out of step with the views of everyday Texans. While a recent poll showed that 60% of Texas voters supported recreational cannabis, lawmakers continue to drag their feet on decriminalization. “There’s this entrenched mentality, it used to be this way on both sides of the aisle, that maybe we just want to be tough on crime,” cannabis advocate Rep. Joe Moody (D) said in an interview with the Texan news channel KXAN. In Austin, the state’s center of progressive politics where voters will have the chance to vote on decriminalization in May, the head of the police union Ken Casaday came out in firm opposition to the measure.“We don’t support it,” he said to the Texas Tribune. “They’re skirting state law.”
What does a Texan have to do to get some damn plant medicine?
Currently, the only cannabis product legal in Texas is low THC oil. In 2015, Governor Greg Abbott signed the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which allowed the use of cannabis oil with up to .5% THC for epilepsy. But the governor qualified his support, saying, “I remain convinced that Texas should not legalize marijuana, nor should Texas open the door for conventional marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes.”
The 2019 legalization of CBD products proved to be a boon for patients and the budding hemp industry, with side benefits to the illicit cannabis trade. Because the state lacked testing that could distinguish between marijuana and hemp, once the bill was signed into law district attorneys across the state began dropping hundreds of low-level marijuana cases and refraining from taking on new ones, citing the lack of testing as their cause.
As the Texas Tribune reported, the Republican party platform supports cannabis, and the Republicans looking to bring the industry to Texas are getting fed up with cannabis saboteurs in state government. “It’s extremely frustrating,” John Baucum, political director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, has said. “We’d expect them to support the party platform from the top to the bottom.”
Which conditions are eligible for medical marijuana in Texas?
As slow as the progress has been, the state’s severe cannabis laws are seeing incremental change. In 2019, the list of qualifying conditions for low THC oil, previously limited to epilepsy, was expanded to include terminal cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), seizure disorders, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s Disease. In 2020, a ban against smokable hemp was ruled unconstitutional. In May of 2021, a requirement in state law that any drug conviction be penalized with a six-month driver’s license suspension was eliminated.
Though they continue to dig in their heels, the virulent anti-cannabis stance of Texas government officials from police officers to politicians like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has been known to threaten that any decriminalization bills would be “dead in the water”, is an increasingly antiquated attitude. As Texans reach across the aisle to advocate legalization of cannabis, the state finds itself in a shoot-off, if you will, between the hard line old guard and the rest of Texas. Cannabis industry advocates can expect progress to be slow, but if the Texas government ever remembers it’s a democracy, legalization will eventually come to pass.