Texas blows two good chances to move forward on marijuana. Blame Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick | Opinion

Texas has been doing marijuana reform the right way, moving slowly and evaluating the consequences while other states have flown ahead to full legalization.

But there’s moving slowly and there’s not moving at all. This year, the Legislature — the Senate, specifically — unfortunately chose to stand still.

Two sensible measures made it out of the House with strong majorities. One would add chronic pain to the list of medical conditions for which one could get legal, mild cannabis products. The other would take an important incremental step on recreational weed use, lessening the penalties and making possession of a small, personal amount akin to a traffic ticket.

The House, which has voted in three straight legislative sessions to reduce criminal penalties, reflects bipartisan public sentiment. The Senate reflects the iron hand of one state official: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

These bills, like others before them, never got as much as a single committee hearing in Patrick’s Senate. It’s uncertain whether a majority of senators oppose them. There’s just not much room to buck the three-term lieutenant governor, especially among his fellow Republicans.

Samantha Farrell with Sensible Movement Coalition holds a flag depicting a cannabis leaf at a rally in support of legalized marijuana, April 20, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Samantha Farrell with Sensible Movement Coalition holds a flag depicting a cannabis leaf at a rally in support of legalized marijuana, April 20, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.

Their constituents’ views are clear. In poll after poll, Texans say they want decriminalization — nearly three-quarters of respondents in a December survey by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics project.

The methodical push on medical cannabis has been led by Fort Worth Rep. Stephanie Klick. She’s a reliably conservative Republican who trained as a nurse and lets research guide her legislation.

Over eight years, she and other lawmakers have created a “compassionate use” program. They’ve been careful: The program started with only one condition eligible, a form of epilepsy. Products must be low in THC, the compound that produces marijuana’s high. And participants don’t get pot to smoke; it must be dispensed in the form of, say, an edible or applicable oil.

Many Texans who need relief from chronic pain turn to opioids, and we’ve seen the dangers of addiction and abuse of pills. Apparently Patrick thinks those consequences are preferable to letting doctors prescribe cannabis gummies.

The decriminalization bill was another sensible step. States that have rushed into full legalization are starting to see consequences, including widespread public use. A better approach is something like the measure the House approved. It would drop penalties for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine. It would prevent needless arrests that clog our jails and establish a protocol for expunging minor pot convictions from one’s criminal record.

The Legislature also failed on an important regulatory need. Confusion on the difference between hemp and weed and a lack of testing and enforcement have resulted in the ready availability of intoxicating products at corner gas stations. Teenagers, of course, have figured this out, and the state needs a robust consumer protection action.

It’s odd: The Senate won’t agree to decriminalization, but it won’t do anything to better enforce current laws.

Fort Worth and other Tarrant County cities can choose not to wait on the Legislature. They should instruct police not to jail anyone over possession of less than 2 ounces of pot. Offenders would get a court summons, and if they didn’t show up to face consequences, they could be arrested. But it’s past time to stop using precious jail resources on minor drug offenses.

After all, we’ve got at least another two years to wait for the Legislature — for the lieutenant governor, actually — to plot a more sensible pot policy for Texas.