The Future Looks Green for Marijuana in Texas

 By Jef Rouner

It was only five years ago that Governor Greg Abbott was firmly against legalizing marijuana in Texas, even for medicinal purposes. However, a change of heart appears to have come over the governor and the Republican majority, signaling that an end to a key fight in the War on Drugs may be nigh.

In June of 2019, the growing of hemp was legalized in the state, and it has had significant effects on the ability of prosecutors to punish people for having marijuana products. The law narrowed the definition of marijuana to cannabis containing more than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces the high. Anything less than that amount is classified as legal hemp.

What that means in practical terms is that confiscated suspected marijuana products must now be tested for their THC levels in order to determine if they are legal. Though the Texas Department of Public Safety is expected to roll out a more streamlined method of testing any day now, the additional testing requirements are proving to be a strain on various counties’ resources, especially as more expensive private testing firms are being used to clear the backlog.

As a result, the Texas Court of Admissions has seen a two-thirds drop in marijuana prosecutions since the law’s passage, and some districts are beginning to see pursuing such cases as more bother and expense than they are worth, especially for misdemeanors. Despite the law that has led here, Abbott has sent out a letter to Texas district attorneys urging them to continue to prosecute.

Medical marijuana as also received more freedom in the last legislative session. House Bill 3703 expanded applications to include autism and terminal cancer, which is a significant step forward for the legalization cause. However, the move angered some activists because it neglected to include medical marijuana as an acceptable treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The call to treat people who suffer from PTSD, including the state’s 1.5 million veterans, with medical marijuana comes on the heels of a major opioid crisis in that population and a suicide rate double that of non-veterans.

That said, there is still considerable debate on whether medical marijuana is useful in treating PTSD. One study by Samuel T. Wilkinson, Elina Stefanovics, and Robert A. Rosenheck published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that use of cannabinoids is actually associated with worsened PTSD symptoms, such as violence, as well as being co-morbid with increased alcohol abuse. As of the new year, it appears there are cracks in Texas’ long-standing antipathy to marijuana, with the new hemp law making authorities unable or unwilling to continue prosecuting people possessing it, in addition to expanded medical use legitimizing it as a substance that has public applications. Though the Texas government is far from accepting widespread decriminalization as some other states have, the leadership has shifted an incredible amount in a very short time.

Straight Party Ticket Voting Is Out. Here’s How That Could Affect Upcoming Judicial Elections

While justice is blind, judicial elections in Texas are not.

Primary elections are coming up in March, and with early voting starting in February, judicial candidates will be competing against each other to represent their party on the ballot.

Today, Texas is one of only a few states that requires candidates running for judicial office to declare a party affiliation. Despite expectations of independent and impartial rulings, judges in Texas are still elected with party affiliations. 

In low-information judicial races, straight-ticket voting becomes more common, which makes partisan alignment more impactful than merit. This causes judicial elections to be susceptible to the political tides they are meant to be separated from.

A prime example of how political affiliation affects candidates occurred in 2018. In the 2018 election, experienced Harris County judge, Ed Emmet, lost his bid for re-election in an incredibly close election. The County judge, who was on the ballot as a Republican candidate, lost by a margin of 19,000 votes in a county where Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz lost by 200,000 votes.

However, this was not the only seat to be impacted in the 2018 election. Democratic Senate Candidate Beto O’Rourke, who sat at the top of the ticket, boosted Democratic turnout and elected Democratic majorities on appeals courts where they previously held less than 22 percent of the seats.

The major Republican loss spurred the Texas legislature to end straight-party voting and create a commission built to examine the issue of partisan judicial elections, which opens up the possibility of judicial reform.

In the 2020 election, we will not see straight party tickets, and it may be the last year for partisan judicial election. Hundreds of attorneys filed to run for election in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and the results could serve as a bellwether for future races in the state.

Early voting begins Tuesday, February 18.