Why Cannabis Reform Crashed in Texas

Published on May 17, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
A longhorn skull stands guard at a Texas hill country ranch.

The past few days have been an emotional roller coaster for Texas cannabis activists. Last week, two marijuana reform bills were sailing through the Texas House, making it farther than similar proposals have in decades. By Saturday, both were dead.

Texas legislators meet only in odd-numbered years, so little will happen until 2019.

The Texas state legislature only meets for a 140-day regular session in odd-numbered years.  Barring a special legislative session—something Gov. Greg Abbott seems unlikely to approve—there will be no cannabis reforms in Texas until the legislature meets again in 2019.

The implications are huge. The Marijuana Policy Project estimates that about 70,000 people are arrested each year for marijuana possession in Texas. That means that 140,000 more Texans could end up with criminal records before the Texas legislature reconvenes.

Two Bills Shared a Similar Fate

One of laws, to decriminalize personal marijuana possession, had more success in the Texas House than any criminal-justice reform bill since the 1970s. It was authored by three Democrats and two Republicans, garnering bipartisan support.

It was scheduled for a vote last Thursday, but ran out of time. That means the Texas Senate won’t have a chance to consider it before the legislative session officially ends on May 27.

The other bill, which would have expanded Texas’ extremely limited CBD-only law into a true medical marijuana program, had picked up enough signatures to pass out of committee. But when the main part of the House session ended last week, it also hadn’t come to the floor for a full vote.

What Happens Now?

Texas makes do with its deeply flawed CBD-only law.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has approved three companies to grow cannabis as part of a flawed 2015 law legalizing medical CBD oil. According to that law, the agency must start accepting patients in September 2017. But as I reported in February, a quirk in that bill’s language will make it virtually impossible for any patients to join the program.

This was Texas’s last chance to fix the program before it rolls out in September. It’s looking more and more like Texas’ CBD-only program will be dead on arrival. The state could face lawsuits brought by patients who can’t access the program or by the companies state-approved to produce CBD oil (but who will likely have no patients).

Why did last week end with a whimper? In the final hours of the legislative session, disappointed lawmakers trotted out a familiar culprit: time.

“Our clock has run out on us tonight on House Bill 2107,” State Representative Jason Isaac (R-Austin) said last week in a Facebook Live video, referring to the medical bill.

'Our clock has run out on us tonight.'

The Texas House of Representatives’ irregular meeting schedule makes it one of America’s least-attended state legislatures. A 2015 investigation by Dallas Morning News found that “Texas often falls as low as No. 11 in America for states where lawmakers meet least frequently.”

But the time crunch doesn’t tell the whole story. The Texas House still managed to pass hundreds of bills this session, ranging from the bipartisan (public utilities) to the controversial (sanctuary cities).

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That’s left some frustrated cannabis activists wondering if Texas House members really prioritized marijuana reform—or if they threw the two bills under the bus. Heather Fazio, the Texas MPP spokesperson, doesn’t think cannabis issues were targeted for rejection.

“Our bills fell by the wayside, just like thousands of other bills,” she said. “This [cannabis reform] issue certainly wasn’t being singled out.”

Fazio acknowledged that time constraints were a problem—but didn’t think they had to be. “It’s very disappointing to witness the Texas legislature wasting time for so long, and on the last day, debating ridiculous bills that affect no one,” she said.

In the final days of the session, for instance, the Texas House declared May 11 to be “Home Care and Hospice Day” and recognized a Denton, Texas-based lawn-care company for “their many contributions to the Denton community.”

John Baucum, chairman of the Texas Young Republican Federation and political director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, praised representatives like John Isaac, who helped lead the Republican push for the decriminalization bill. But for much of the Texas House, he argued, support for marijuana reform was just “political gamesmanship.”

“It’s hard to think they were working so hard to get through everything that [these laws] just happened to not make it by a little bit,” he said. “Especially when you see other bills that come out committees later and get assigned on the calendar sooner.”

A better explanation, Baucum said, was that many politicians wanted to put their name behind marijuana reform without actually committing to anything. A floor vote, he said, would have “drawn a line in the sand”—something that’s great for cannabis activists, but potentially dangerous for state legislators seeking re-election.

“That gives [cannabis activists] a lot of leverage going into the next election cycle, because you really know who your allies are and who your opposition is,” Baucum said. That logic runs the other way for politicians, who would have to explain their cannabis votes to constituents during the 2018 election season.

In October 2016, a Pew Research found that a 57% majority of Americans now support full marijuana legalization. Apparently, that wasn’t enough to assuage the concerns of timid Texas lawmakers.

But Baucum doesn’t place all the blame on the Texas House of Representatives. In other states, he pointed out, marijuana reform victories have almost always come through ballot initiatives—an option that Texas lacks.

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Stephen Paulsen
Stephen Paulsen
Stephen Paulsen is a freelance journalist based in Houston. He writes about crime, food, drugs, subcultures, and urban planning.
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