(Deborah Cannon, Statesman.com file via The Associated Press)

‘A paradigm shift’ in Texas marijuana: These state legislators want to decriminalize weed

'The bill does require you to create a new construct that we don’t have in Texas. We criminalize everything. We can arrest you for everything. Everything is a crime in Texas. It’s a paradigm shift when you say it’s against the law, but it’s not a crime.'

AUSTIN, Texas — With the 2017 Texas legislative session approaching, it appears that marijuana reform is in the mix of issues that the state Republican establishment, or at least parts of it, can get behind.

Expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program appeared as a plank in this year’s state GOP platform, with the support of 76 percent of convention delegates. Party leadership has taken the hint. In an August interview in the small-town Wimberley View newspaper, state Rep. Jason Isaac, the vice president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, said if cannabis decriminalization bills came up during the 2017 legislative session, he’d back them:

“I do support people who get caught with small amount of marijuana for personal use that they not be treated as criminals, and that it be a misdemeanor fine similar to public intoxication or a parking ticket. That way they are not branded as criminals and ultimately waste economic development and waste tax payer dollars. For me it’s about economic development, and those people who may be hurt by this one mistake they may have made.”

Though Isaac didn’t respond to repeated Cannabist requests for an interview, he appears to be sticking to that stance. A few weeks ago, Julian Olinick — a construction contractor in the Texas Hill Country, the verdant tourism towns that surround Austin — called his state representative, Isaac, to ask for support in expanding the state’s “Compassionate Use Act.” Passed in 2015, the CUA, when it’s finally implemented, will offer a limited supply of low-THC cannabis to severely ill children.

It was literally the very least the state legislature could do, but it represented progress.

Olinick, who says he’s pushing this issue because he has a nephew with epilepsy and also has an interest in using industrial hemp in building materials, didn’t expect much from Isaac, a conservative Republican. But he was shocked at what he heard.

“Representative Isaac is supportive of decriminalization,” a staff member told Olinick on the phone. Decriminalization hadn’t even been brought up, but suddenly there it was, sitting at the center of the table. “In my experience,” Olinick says, “this was something he’s been keeping a secret, and now he’s unleashed it.”

As soon as the election smoke cleared in mid-November, Texas lawmakers started filing bills. First through the gate was House Bill 81, from Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. The bill would replace arrests and jail time with a civil fine for low-level possession of marijuana.

It’s almost the exact same bill Moody filed in 2015, which made it out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee with bi-partisan support. While Isaac isn’t an official co-sponsor of the bill, Moody said in a phone interview that the two representatives have talked often about this issue.

Texas State Capital
The dome of the Texas State Capital is seen through trees in Austin, Texas on July 30, 2013. (Eric Gay, The Associated Press)

“Rep. Isaac is pretty pragmatic, and I think he’s very thoughtful,” Moody says. “He was always going to give it very fair consideration. There are some people who fall victim to the typical arguments you hear about this type of legislation. He’s not one of those types of people. He’s going to make his decision on what he thinks are best. Stereotypical concerns don’t impact his decision-making.”

Marijuana decriminalization bills have actually been floating around the Texas House and Senate since the 1990s, and had even made it out of committee before 2015, but the wheels of progress, by design, grind very slowly in The Lone Star State. Not locking up people for a small-scale weed possession may seem obvious to someone in a state with looser marijuana laws, but Texas, as anyone who’s lived here for five minutes knows, works differently.

As Moody told me:

“There’s some resistance to having change like this that’s not even rooted in policy considerations. The bill does require you to create a new construct that we don’t have in Texas. We criminalize everything. We can arrest you for everything. Everything is a crime in Texas. It’s a paradigm shift when you say it’s against the law, but it’s not a crime.”

But, Moody says, the fact that this is even being discussed, that it’s even an option for a conservative Republican governor to sign a marijuana decriminalization bill, represents a radical shift. The path for decriminalization is very narrow in Texas — a bill has to make it out of a House committee, get debated on the House floor, win a House vote, win a Senate vote, and then get signed into law — but that path does conceivably exist.

“When I was first elected in 2011,” Moody says. “I would never have imagined filing something like this. I’m a former prosecutor, very middle of the road, when it comes to criminal justice. I don’t like big sea changes. I wouldn’t have been someone who supported this when I was a freshman. But the population’s opinion is changing quickly and that disconnect is not going to exist much longer.”

Change, as always in Texas, seems unlikely — but it’s not impossible any longer. Apparently, despite a very cloudy national climate around marijuana, Texas cannabis reform is on for real, across the political spectrum.

A week ago, I got an excited email from construction contractor Olinick, who said he’d called Representative Isaac’s office again about marijuana laws. He wrote to me that an Isaac staffer said to him:

“He has been approached and is in contact with so many of his local constituents who have convinced him this is an important issue. That is why he feels passionately about it.”

“Well, OK,” I wrote back.

Twenty seconds passed before Olinick replied to me, with a surplus of optimism that’s surprisingly typical around these parts:

“History is happening!”