COMMENTARY: Marijuana misstep or opportunity?

BY STATE REP. TERRY CANALES | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

Recently, the Texas Legislature unanimously passed legislation, which regulates the growth, production, transportation, sale and consumption of legal hemp products in Texas, bringing our state in line with close to 40 other states and the federal government in legalizing hemp. Yet, it seems that a mistake was made. The law took immediate effect on June 10, 2019, without giving crime laboratories across the state adequate time to update their equipment to properly distinguish now-legal hemp from illegal marijuana.

Because of this blunder, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they will not pursue new ones without further testing. Some are saying that it could take up to one year before labs in Texas receive the equipment and accreditation to differentiate between hemp and marijuana, which will undoubtedly slow down prosecutions on marijuana across our state.

While this could be viewed as a misstep, I have come to think of it more as an opportunity. Polling continues to show that a majority of Texans support marijuana legalization with an even higher amount of people supporting decriminalizing the substance.

Over the past decade, the perception of marijuana in Texas has changed as we have watched states across the country change their own marijuana laws. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 11 states, medical marijuana is legal in 33, and 14 states have decriminalized marijuana without legalizing it.

Just last session, the Texas House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Unfortunately, the legislation stalled in the Senate not because of a shortage in votes, but rather because of the lack of action by our lieutenant governor.

Cities and counties across Texas that are grappling with this recent testing issue should view this as an opportunity to look at ending arrests and incarceration for small amounts of marijuana.

Our current marijuana laws in the state of Texas are sending an average of 75,000 people to Texas jails each year, leading to overcrowding in these facilities while simultaneously keeping our law enforcement officers from spending their time and resources on more serious crimes. Furthermore, our marijuana laws give lifelong criminal records to young people, which in the long run are harming their ability to find jobs, obtain housing and even serve in the military.

Yet while the above holds truth in most of our counties, it is important to note that current Texas law already gives our cities and counties the ability to adopt cite-and-release policies, and work to reduce the scarlet letter from marijuana convictions on our youth. In Nueces County, for example, which is not a liberal county from anyone’s viewpoint, District Attorney Mark Gonzalez has implemented a cite-and-release program for low-level offenders that has received nationwide acclaim. Counties from across Texas should study the work in Nueces County and work toward implementing similar policies.

Without a doubt, our local leaders have the tools they need now to lessen the tough punishments that are on the books for cannabis. We would be well served to use this hemp misstep as an opportunity to implement cite-and-release policies and look at strategies to lessen the lifelong burden and implications a marijuana conviction can bring upon our young offenders.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who is the chair of the House Committee on Transportation, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.