Despite committee OK, pot bills still face hurdles in Legislature

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San Antonio Express-News & Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN – Any optimism supporters feel from this week’s unprecedented committee passage of two bills to legalize or decriminalize marijuana possession in Texas is likely to be shortlived in the face of legislative deadlines and broader opposition in both chambers.

A medical marijuana-related bill approved by the Senate on Thursday may have a better shot, but its future in the House is uncertain, despite having support in the lower chamber.

The Senate voted 26-to-5 Thursday to legalize Cannabidiol, or CDB oil, a marijuana-derived compound which is low in THC, the active chemical that causes the high of smoking pot. The oil is sought for treatment of epilepsy and seizures.

Senate passage of the bill was hailed historic by Sindi Rosales, CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation Central and South Texas.

“The Senate brought us one step closer to helping save the lives of people with intractable epilepsy,” Rosales said.

More surprising was the approval of a bill to outright legalize marijuana by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Wednesday when two Republicans joined three Democrats in a 5-2 vote to advance the legislation. That OK came two days after the same committee voted 4-2 to approve another bill to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Only three states, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, author of the legalization bill, conceded his measure faces strong opposition.

“There’s some that are very outspoken against it, but most people recognize that it’s time. Not only to have the discussion, but to quit putting people in prison when they haven’t harmed their neighbor,” Simpson said, adding, “It’s just a plant and we should allow for its legitimate use without expanding government.”

Denton County Sheriff William Travis said he was surprised the bill was able to make its way out of committee, considering the strong arguments the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas presented at hearings.

The legalization of marijuana would not have any drastic impacts on the number of drug-related arrests, said Travis, who authored a Sheriff’s Association resolution last year opposing recreational and medicinal use of the drug.

“It wouldn’t just empty out the jails, like some suspect,” he said, pointing out that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors throughout the state already have programs to address the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In Harris County, the district attorney’s office last year rolled out a pilot program to allow first-time offenders caught with up to two ounces of marijuana to complete eight hours of community service or an eight-hour class in lieu of prosecution for the Class B misdemeanor. The program is run in conjunction with the sheriff’s office and the Houston Police Department.

Travis added that legalizing pot would increase the number of people functioning in impaired states that could have negative impacts on both the public safety and health, especially among young people who he said would gain easier access to the drug if it is made available to adults.

Advocates acknowledge the legalization bill faces high hurdles.

“Realistically, knowing the timetable, it’s going to be very close to even get this bill heard on the House floor,” said Phillip Martin with the liberal group Progress Texas.

Even if any of the bills were to pass both chambers, each faces opposition from Gov. Greg Abbott, who has pledged to veto marijuana decriminalization legislation.

Advocates say the number of marijuana-related bills filed in the Legislature this session and the level of support shows a shift in attitudes.

“It’s tremendous progress, unprecedented progress for marijuana policy reform. It works across party lines,” Martin said.

A poll taken earlier this year by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin found that 34 percent of respondents said marijuana possession should be legal for medical purposes, and 26 percent said it should be legal for any purpose. Another 24 percent said pot possession should not be legal under any circumstances.

“Marijuana prohibition’s days are numbered in the Lone Star State,” said Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Texas voters recognize that punishing adults for consuming a substance that is safer than alcohol is a waste of law enforcement resources and an affront to individual liberty.”

For others, a chance at decriminalizing compounds like cannabidol offers hope.

“This is the best Mother’s Day present I could ever ask for,” said Liz Tullis of San Antonio, one of several parents of children with intractable epilepsy who testified in favor of the bill before the Senate last week. “As a mother, watching your children suffer is the worst thing you can imagine. The thought that I may soon be able to help my son is a unimaginable gift.”


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