The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s decision last week to list cannabis alongside the world’s deadliest drugs, like heroin, means that states will continue to decide on their own whether pot possession should be harshly punished and what, if any, patients are allowed access to a plant with many known medical uses.
The decision perpetuates a patchwork system of pot laws across the country that differ radically from state to state. Lawmakers in 25 states have legalized marijuana in some form, while four states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational use of the plant. On the flip side, in some parts of the country, like Texas, a pot possession charge can derail your life and lead to significant jail time. Some cops in Texas might even stick their hands inside you on the side of the road if they think they smell something skunky during a traffic stop.
That’s why marijuana reform activists in Texas say they’re focused on changing state policy in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January 2017. Heather Fazio, Texas political director with the Marijuana Policy Project, says activists have two main goals heading into the session: expanding medical marijuana and lowering criminal penalties for simple possession.
While lawmakers managed to pass the state’s first-ever medical marijuana law last year, the law itself is extremely limited—if not practically useless. It approved only marijuana extracts containing high levels of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, and only trace amounts of THC, the stuff that actually gets you high. Still, patients suffering from uncontrollable seizures and rare forms of epilepsy (the people who probably need it the most) are now eligible for this medical marijuana extract with a doctor’s prescription.
This presents another problem: All other medical marijuana states have laws requiring doctors “recommend” or “certify” patients wanting pot for treatment. That’s because “prescribing” medical marijuana is still one of those legal gray areas thanks to federal pot prohibition. Since the DEA still considers the plant to be a Schedule I drug (meaning it has no legitimate use), doctors risk losing their DEA license to prescribe other controlled substances if they start “prescribing” pot. But turns out “recommending” or “certifying” patients for medical marijuana use is a First Amendment-protected activity, so other states have adjusted their laws accordingly.
Texas’ law, meanwhile, says a doctor must “prescribe” the drug. Advocates say the law is so limited families with sick children, like this one, continue to flee the state seeking treatment for serious seizure disorders in other states with more relaxed marijuana laws. Fazio says activists want to see the drug expanded to treat a variety of conditions—from post-traumatic stress disorder to relief for cancer patients.
"There are families uprooting from Texas, where they want to live, because they can't treat their children here," Fazio told us. "We think we can convince the Legislature that that shouldn't be happening."
Fazio says the other priority for 2017 is legislation that reduces criminal penalties for pot possession in Texas. And that’s because, as it stands, some of those laws are not only draconian, but nonsensical. (Consider the fact that prosecutors in Texas can threaten people caught with too many pot brownies with life in prison because Texas law, instead of weighing the amount of drugs that actually went into the edibles, considers a pound of flour, sugar, and eggs mixed with pot to be a charge-able pound of drugs.)
Fazio says MPP plans to back, among other things, the kind of proposal filed by El Paso Rep. Joe Moody last year, which would reduce penalties for marijuana possession of less than 1 ounce to a $100 fine and no jail time.
"We want to take away the threat of arrest, jail time, and most importantly that criminal record that comes along with a simple possession charge,” Fazio said.