Since Election Day, Texas lawmakers have filed a half-dozen cannabis reform bills, with more to come. Most of the bills so far focus on criminal-justice reform, but medical bills are certainly coming. Pictured: Bruce Nelsen is reflected in a puddle as he walks past a mural of the Texas state flag, painted on the side of a building in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 8, 2002. (Ron Baselice, The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Inside story on how Texas advocates are mobilizing for marijuana reform

Legalizing marijuana hasn't been easy anywhere, but Texas presents a unique set of challenges

AUSTIN, Texas — One afternoon a few Sundays ago, I went to an “Advocacy Training” sponsored by a group called Texans For Responsible Marijuana Policy, in a conference room at a branch library in a Latino-heavy neighborhood in San Antonio.

This was the eighth in a series of nine such briefings held across the state. Every one of the several dozen chairs in the room was occupied. Marijuana policy work in Texas attracts an eccentric mix, and this meeting was no different: Attendees included disabled veterans, MS patients, student activists, lawyers, construction-company owners, professors and former prison guards, all of them desperate for reform.

Legalizing marijuana hasn’t been easy anywhere, but Texas presents a unique set of challenges. When it comes to marijuana, “Texas,” they told us at the training, “is behind the times.”

Texas state law prohibits citizen referendums, so you can’t collect signatures, run a spirited TV campaign and then hope that dispensaries pop up like psilocybin mushrooms after a warm rain. Even though a recent non-partisan survey shows that three-quarters of the population favors some form of reform, all change has to run through the Legislature.

The Texas Leg only meets for five months every two years, so anyone who cares about this issue needs to be ready for the sprint. The next session begins in January.

We began with a recap of the last legislative session. Marijuana was one of the liveliest sectors in 2015. Four bills made it out of committee. Most surprising and newsworthy was House Bill 2165, which called for a full repeal of marijuana prohibition. It came from the Christian libertarian mind of state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. After Simpson encountered story after story of suffering children who needed cannabis treatments in his district, he staged a spirited campaign for full unregulated legalization, saying that “God didn’t make a mistake that the government needs to fix,” and that cannabis should be treated “like jalapeños.”

This bill made it out of committee, but it didn’t get a vote on the House floor.

There was also a decriminalization bill to establish civil penalties for marijuana possession. Currently, possessing fewer than two ounces in Texas brings a misdemeanor charge, up to 180 days in jail, and up to a $2,000 fine, not to mention a permanent blotch on your criminal record. This also escaped committee but didn’t get a vote, and the same fate awaited a bill for a comprehensive medical marijuana program.

However, the Texas Compassionate Use Act did pass, and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. The act is neither particularly compassionate nor useful. As Heather Fazio from the national advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project said at the training: “On a scale of one to 10, it’s probably about a three. But at least it acknowledges that cannabis is medicine.”

The program allows some patients with epilepsy to have access to low-THC cannabis oil, with a limited number of distributors and producers. It has to be regulated by the Texas Department Of Public Safety, which recently proposed a massive fee increase for cannabis business licenses. Also, it doesn’t go into effect until this September, and two separate doctors who specialize in a certain kind of epilepsy must prescribe the oil.

Those doctors will be hard to find; in the entirety of metropolitan Houston, the state’s largest city, only two qualify. The Legislature essentially did the least amount that it could possibly do to avoid saying that it was against epileptic children.

“It sucked to see such a bad bill passed,” Fazio told us.

Advocates have a steep hill as 2017 approaches. State representative Simpson lost in a runoff election to a less marijuana-sympathetic opponent, so there probably won’t be a legalization surprise. Instead, the focus likely will be in two areas:

1) Decriminalizing personal use by establishing civil penalties resulting in a citation and a fine, making marijuana possession no more serious than a traffic ticket.

2) Creating a more comprehensive medical marijuana program.

There appears to be broad bipartisan support for the latter.

The Texas GOP platform, adopted in May, states: “We call upon the Texas Legislature to improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to prescribed patients.” The state Republican Party approved this plank with 78 percent support.

All this information took up about half the training. Much of the rest of it was comprised of the usual lobbying boilerplate:

Wear a shirt and tie, be polite and kind to staff members, be persistent, stick to your talking points, use facts, tell your personal story but don’t get too emotional, follow up with an e-mail.

Jax Finkel, the executive director of Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, rallied the troops for the long march ahead. Just because the people want marijuana reform doesn’t mean the legislators are listening, she said. There’s a lot of expensive competition for their sympathies.

“We have to make our voices even louder,” Finkel said. “We don’t have millions of dollars, which is how most bills get passed. So we have to raise millions of voices.”

There will be lobbying days, she warned, and long waits in representative’s offices, and hours spent on hold waiting to be heard. But you have to let your representative know, she said, that you’re serious about marijuana reform. “It’s a relationship,” she said. “From now until the end of the session is hardcore dating time.”

Most important of all, Finkel said, will be the crowded committee hearings that go on until three in the morning. She wanted to make sure that her team would be there to testify with dignity, armed with facts.

Since Election Day, Texas lawmakers have filed a half-dozen cannabis reform bills, with more to come. Most of the bills so far focus on criminal-justice reform, but medical bills are certainly coming. Given the uncertainty around marijuana in the new federal government, the fight is going to be even tougher than first thought. But Texas has an organized and determined crew ready.

“Prohibition doesn’t sleep,” Finkel said at the training. “The people on the other side are working around the clock. We have to do whatever we can to keep this in the public eye. Be prepared. The reps are going to be tired. Some of them are rude during the hearings. But we’re going to be peaceful warriors, right?”