Texas Marijuana Prosecutions Plummet with Hemp Legalization

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Marijuana prosecutions have dropped by more than half in Texas since June 2019.

Statewide, prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession charges a month in 2018. In the first five months of 2019, prosecutors filed about 5,600 new cases. However, the number of new misdemeanor marijuana possession charges began to drop in June 2019 and had plummeted to 1,919 in November.

The decrease is connected to Texas legalizing hemp in June 2019 (HB 1325) in an effort to bring the state into compliance with federal laws. The federal government legalized hemp in Dec. 2018.

Both marijuana and hemp come from the cannabis plant, and are mostly indistinguishable by look or smell. THC content is the main difference between the two substances, with marijuana classified as having more than 0.3% THC content, while anything with 0.3% or less is considered hemp according to federal and Texas law.

Proving that a substance is marijuana rather than hemp requires lab tests, according to some Texas attorneys, and those lab tests are expensive and time-consuming to use for every possible misdemeanor marijuana charge.

Houston Forensic Science Center COO, Peter Stout explained, “None of the labs in the state are in a position to do this type of testing, certainly not at this scale. None of us can do it to meet the marijuana caseloads in the state. We don’t have adequate resources to process the caseloads that we already have.”

Sharen Wilson, Tarrant County District Attorney, stated, “I don’t know that the Legislature had an intent to legalize marijuana. They just made it much more difficult to prosecute… You know what’s interesting to me ’cause I, you know, grew up rural Texas – it’s the exact same plant. It’s not like you’re driving down the highway and you say, oh, that’s wheat over here, and this is cotton over there… [Marijuana and hemp are] the exact same plant… Now, for us to prosecute a marijuana case, we have to be able to prove that it’s marijuana.”

Governor Greg Abbot stated in a July 18, 2019 letter to district and county attorneys, “Some of you have recently dismissed marijuana possession cases or announced you will not prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases without a lab test… [M]arijuana has not been decriminalized in Texas, and these actions demonstrate and misunderstanding of how H.B. 1325 works… [L]ab tests are not required in every case and are more affordable than initial reports indicates. Failing to enforce marijuana laws cannot be blamed on legislation that did not decriminalize marijuana in Texas.”

33 states and DC have legal medical marijuana and 11 states and DC legal recreational marijuana. Texas has not legalized either.

Discussion Questions – Things to Think About
1. Should recreational marijuana be legal? Why or why not?

2. Should the prosecution have to prove via lab test that a substance is marijuana before convicting someone for possession? Explain your answer.

3. Should medical marijuana be legal? Why or why not?

Sources:

Greg Abbot, July 19, 2019 Letter to Texas District and County Attorneys, gov.texas.gov

Christopher Connelly, “When Texas Legalized Hemp It Forced Some Counties to Change How They Prosecute Pot,” npr.org, Aug. 20, 2019

Jolie McCullough, “Marijuana Prosecution in Texas Have Dropped by More Than Half since Lawmakers Legalized Hemp,” texastribune.org, Jan. 3, 2020

Jolie McCullough, “Texas Leaders: Hemp Law Did Not Decriminalize Marijuana,” texastribune.org, July 18, 2019

Megan Menchaca, “CBD, Hemp, Medical Marijuana? Here’s What You Need to Know about Texas’ Changing Pot Laws,” kbtx.com, Jan. 28, 2020

Mitch Mitchell and Deana Boyd, “Tarrant County Prosecutors Dismiss More than 200 Marijuana Cases Due to Changes in Law,” star-telegram.com, June 26, 2019