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The Highs & Lows of the Push for Marijuana Reform in 2015

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune
Advocates pushing for reform in Texas marijuana laws faced stiff opposition in the state legislature this year, though Texas did legalize a pot-based treatment for epilepsy.

Texas broke the seal on marijuana legalization this year when lawmakers voted to make available a non-intoxicating marijuana extract for patients with severe epilepsy in 2017. And, a national advocacy group for the legal marijuana industry is pledging to push even harder in Texas for a change in pot regulation.

The Marijuana Policy Project’s Texas director Heather Fazio says Senate Bill 339, which garnered bipartisan support in the House and Senate ahead of its passage, is an “imperfect law.” Still, she says, it’s an incremental victory, and the project intends to target the growing number of Texans who support legalization by “helping to mobilize them in communicating with their legislators, so they are 100 percent sure that this is what their district would want them to be doing,” she says.  

Credit From the Texas Tribune
A June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that a majority of Texans surveyed strongly support reducing criminal penalties for possession of marijuana.

The Marijuana Policy Project is holding advocacy training events in Dallas, Houston, Amarillo and Lubbock, bringing out opponents to pot prohibition like active duty Dallas Police Officer Nick Novello.

“I’m a very conservative guy,” Novello says. “But I feel compelled to speak because the social fabric will not tolerate this any longer.”

But for all the talk of making pot legal, the Marijuana Policy Project could not convince enough state lawmakers this year to approve even modest reductions in penalties for marijuana possession.  Outgoing Democratic Rep. Elliot Naishtat of Austin tried and failed for years to reduce penalties for medical users of pot.

“[There are] too many members who cannot afford to appear weak on crime,” he says.  

Credit Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott shakes hands with student Zachariah Moccia, 25, of San Antonio after signing SB 339, allowing limited medical use of marijuana-derived oils that help control seizures in epileptic patients on June 1, 2015.

He points out Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who wield tremendous power in the capitol, have both voiced their opposition to any marijuana legalization.

At the signing ceremony for the bill in June, Abbott didn’t mince words when addressing whether the bill’s passage could lead to more lax penalties for marijuana possession, legalization for medicinal purposes or outright legalization in Texas, according to the Texas Tribune.

“I remain convinced that Texas should not legalize marijuana, nor should Texas open the door for conventional marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes,” Abbott said before signing the bill. “As governor, I will not allow it; SB 339 does not open the door to marijuana in Texas.” 

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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