The new hemp law reveals a bigger problem: Texas needs better cannabis laws

Industrial hemp plant (Cannabis sativa). Photo by Chmee2/Creative Commons

Duly-elected law enforcement officials, both Democrats and Republicans, are telling us that they will no longer prosecute certain cannabis offenses because of the passage of House Bill 1325, which legalizes hemp in Texas. These law enforcement professionals say similarities between now-legal hemp and still-illegal cannabis will make it difficult, without costly lab testing, to prove the difference to the requisite legal certainty in court. 

As the law enforcement officials chosen by our local communities to execute the laws in furtherance of their safety, they have thoroughly vetted this decision with our communities' needs and resources in mind. Additionally, we believe that their assessment further reflects the modernization of our state laws regarding drug-related offenses. 

During the 86th legislative session, the Texas House overwhelmingly voted in favor of House Bill 63, which would have drastically lowered the penalties associated with cannabis. With both the House and Gov. Greg Abbott working towards the bill's passage, only Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stood in opposition. 

It is regrettable that he was successful in preventing the bill from even receiving a hearing in the Senate, and it is ultimately this failure that has placed our state in its current predicament regarding hemp. As such, our law enforcement officials are merely addressing the situation with the best available solution — one that mirrors what might have happened with the passage of HB 63. Now, it is incumbent on the Texas Legislature to fix the conundrum caused by the new hemp law in the next legislative session.

With a majority of Texas voters supporting the legalization and regulation of cannabis (according to a 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll), the Legislature has more than sufficient reason to debate and vote on a new comprehensive cannabis policy. 

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials must exercise their professional judgment on drug-related offenses as they keep our communities safe. This includes determining how to effectively do their jobs within the constraints of their resources — constraints that have recently been exacerbated by the passage of Senate Bill 2, which requires voter approval for increases in the local property tax revenues used for public safety expenses. 

The concerns we have heard regarding the new hemp law present increased urgency as well as another opportunity to finally bridge public sentiment with criminal justice efforts to reformulate and redraft the state’s cannabis policy.

We take pride in our work as legislators. However, we know the legislative process is not infallible. Given the extreme time constraints on a Legislature that only meets for 140 days every two years for a state with the 10th largest economy in the world, this was not the first time — nor will it be the last —the Texas Legislature passes a law with unintended consequences. 

Rather than stick our heads in the sand and pretend the fault lies with our local elected officials, our job now is to take responsibility and to take this as an opportunity to craft cannabis policy that is well informed, respectful of the will of Texans and embarked upon in partnership with our local communities.

The authors are central Texas lawmakers and Democratic state representatives: John Bucy, Sheryl Cole, Vikki Goodwin, Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard, Celia Israel and Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, James Talarico of Round Rock, and Erin Zwiener of Driftwood.