Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

marijuana

Medical marijuana is now available in Texas

To a very limited number of people, and only under a very strict set of circumstances.

Modern medicine has helped Laura Campbell’s 27-year-old daughter, Sierra, fight off many of her persistent seizures. At her peak, Sierra suffered from more than three seizures a day. Now, she’s down to one or two per month.

But the gains come with their own frustrations.

“She takes five pills twice a day, plus more if she needs an emergency supplement in case of a seizure. It damages her brain every time she has [a seizure]. Her IQ has gone down and her neurological functions are suffering,” Campbell said, trailing off between tears. “With every seizure she has, it just gets worse for her.”

Now Campbell, an Austin resident, is hoping she can wean her daughter off the “harsh” meds and turn to cannabis oil instead. That treatment was legalized in 2015, and a dispensary in Schulenburg made its first delivery of the oil to a young Texas child last week.

But as dispensaries are opening, Texans like Campbell’s daughter might still have a hard time getting access to the oil from marijuana plants. Currently, fewer than 20 doctors across the state are registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety to prescribe it.

They are able to do so under the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the sale of a specific kind of cannabis oil for a small group of Texans: epilepsy patients, like Sierra, whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

But to qualify for the medicine, Texans must have tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. The patients also must be permanent residents of Texas and get approval from two of the 18 doctors listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Under the law, a physician can only sign up for the state registry if, among several other requirements, the doctor has dedicated a significant portion of his or her clinical practice to the evaluation and treatment of epilepsy and is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in either epilepsy or neurology.

The bill in question was passed in 2015, so it’s taken awhile just to get to this point. There are only three dispensaries in the state, and there’s not likely to be many more doctors on the registry, at least not while Jeff Sessions is on a reefer madness kick. The effect of this law should be big for those who are able to take advantage of it, but the number of such people will be very small. I hope that effect is enough to allow for a broader bill in the next Legislature, but the surer route to that destination is to vote for candidates who are willing to support that outcome. The Chron has more.

A little concern trolling from the WSJ

This is a story that tries to stir up concerns about all those Democratic Congressional candidates spending money and energy running against each other in the primaries. I flagged it mostly because of the CD07 content at the end.

Rep. John Culberson

In Houston, the Seventh Congressional District is ethnically diverse, well-educated, suburban and includes some of the city’s wealthiest voting precincts. Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Trump here by 1.4 percentage points, but Mr. Culberson won by 12 points.

The DCCC sent a full-time organizer to Houston in February. She has been working to recruit volunteers and train organizers to defeat Mr. Culberson, without favoring a specific Democratic challenger.

The top fundraiser is Alex Triantaphyllis, founder of a nonprofit group that mentors refugees. He says the party’s “best approach is to be as connected and engaged in this community as possible.”

Primary opponent Laura Moser said at a recent candidate forum that many people in the party “are trying too hard to win over the crossover vote while abandoning our base.” She became a national activist last year by starting an anti-Trump text-message service for “resisting extremism in America.”

In August, Ms. Moser criticized Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.), the current DCCC chairman, in Vogue magazine for saying last spring that the party shouldn’t rule out supporting antiabortion candidates.

Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer also running in the Democratic primary, says she welcomes the lively primary race because it helps to have “a lot of people out there getting people motivated” about next year’s midterm election.

She also acknowledges a downside: “We are raising money to spend against each other rather than against John Culberson.” Another candidate has already run unsuccessfully for the seat three times.

Some Democratic candidates worry they will face pressure to tack to the left because people who attend political events early in the campaign tend to be the party’s most liberal activists. A questioner at a forum in July sponsored by the anti-Trump activist group Indivisible demanded a yes or no answer on whether candidates support the legalization of marijuana.

“There is definitely a danger if you have a circular firing squad over who is the most leftist in the room,” Democratic candidate Jason Westin, an oncologist, said in an interview. “This is not a blue district.”

This was the first mention I had seen of the DCCC organizer in CD07. Since that story appeared, I’ve seen a couple of Facebook invitations to events featuring her, which focus on basic organizing stuff. As we now know, there’s a Republican PAC person here in CD07. It’s getting real, to say the least.

I have no idea why the story singles out marijuana legalization as an issue that might force one of the CD07 candidates to “tack to the left”. Support for marijuana legalization is pretty mainstream these days, and that includes Republicans. The second-highest votegetter in Harris County in 2016 was DA Kim Ogg, who ran and won on a platform of reforming how drug cases are handled, which includes prosecuting far fewer of them. Presumptive Democratic nominee for US Senate Beto O’Rourke supports marijuana legalization. If any candidate in CD07 feels pressured to support marijuana legalization, it’s because they’re out of step with prevailing opinion, not because they’re being dragged in front of an issue.

Finally, on the broader question of all these contested primaries, Lizzie Fletcher mostly sums up how I feel. I believe all these primaries will be a big driver of turnout, which will help set the narrative of higher Democratic engagement. If there’s anything a candidate should feel pressed to do, it’s to pledge to support whoever wins in their primary so we can present a united front for November. I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road and some nastiness in these campaigns as the days wear on, but overall this story sounds like the Journal trying to throw a rope to its surely despondent Republican readers. We Dems were telling ourselves the same kind of story in 2010 when the Tea Party was first making things uncomfortable for Republicans. I’d rather have this energy than not, even if some of it will ultimately be wasted.

More pre-trial diversion

DA Kim Ogg moves forward on more campaign promises.

Kim Ogg

During a press conference Tuesday, Ogg laid out in broad strokes the policy recommendations written by the committees and emphasized that she is seeking participation from experts and Houston’s leaders.

“We listen to the community,” she said, flanked by about 30 volunteers including former HPD Chief C. O. Bradford and Thurgood Marshall School of Law professor Lydia D. Johnson. “We are evidence-based and data driven, but it is important to know how the community wants tax dollars spent to enhance public safety.”

Ogg released the full reports from committees on officer-involved shootings, evidence integrity, equality, immigration, bail-bond reform, mental health and diversity.

Many of the reforms proposed using technology and data more efficiently to streamline the criminal justice system, such as moving to a paperless district attorney’s office or using evidence-based risk assessments to determine bail amounts.

Tarsha Jackson, the Harris County Director with the Texas Organizing Project, was on the bail bond committee and applauded Ogg for involving people with different backgrounds, some with conflicting interests.

“It was a tug of war,” Jackson said of her committee that included a bail bondsman and a representative of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We had deep debate on what the district attorney can do in regard to bail reform, about what’s possible. And the final results were some good policies that she can implement.”

You can see the committee reports here. The themes all came from the campaign, and however you feel about the conclusions, I’d hope we can all respect a process that involved a broad spectrum of stakeholders who worked together across a range of perspectives. The Press read through the reports so you don’t have to.

Among the most noteworthy is the passing mention that Ogg’s administration “will work with all of the Harris County Law Enforcement agencies” to implement cite and release “for appropriate misdemeanor crimes,” which was not mentioned during the press conference. This has been a topic of debate for years, if not a full decade, after the Texas Legislature authorized police in 2007 to issue citations for various small-time crimes rather than arresting people and hauling them to jail. It’d be like getting a traffic ticket, then going to court for it later. It applies to crimes such as driving with an invalid license, criminal mischief, graffiti and possession of less than four ounces of pot (Ogg already diverts most pot cases).

[…]

Also noteworthy are plans to expand mental health diversion. Staci Biggar, a Houston defense attorney who was on Ogg’s mental health transition team panel, said that the idea was to transition people charged with low-level crimes like trespassing, often related to a person’s mental illness, away from jail and into treatment. Rather than asking for money to fund a program, she said judges can still issue pretrial diversion contracts to mentally ill defendants and individualize the terms based on that person’s needs.

“The idea is placing more people on bond and placing them in facilities, making pretrial conditions be to go see a particular health provider, or maybe they need to stay in a particular living situation,” Biggar said. “They can order somebody to see a doctor and they can order somebody to be treated by one organization. If you take a misdemeanor [defendant] and maybe that’s the first or second time they’re arrested, yes, you’ve been arrested, but we’ll drop the charges if you go and do these various things. It shouldn’t be that we wait until you’re really, really in trouble before there’s a stronger intervention for mental health.”

Other noteworthy nuggets from the eight transition team reports include the end to hiking bail to sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for suspected undocumented immigrants; vetting expert witnesses in capital murder cases more extensively and never “expert shopping”; and releasing to the public body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings as long as it does not impede an ongoing investigation — among various recommendations from the officer-involved shooting panel headed by former Houston police chief C.O. Bradford.

As Ogg says, you can judge her by her results in 2020. I think she’s off to a great start.

More medical marijuana requested

This was a pre-Harvey story.

Medical cannabis companies and investors are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety to approve more dispensary licenses beyond the three given provisional approval in May.

In a pair of letters this week, the coalition argues that having just three dispensaries, two in Austin and one in Schulenburg, cannot ensure that patients with intractable epilepsy have easy access to the low THC-chemical strain of the cannabis plant.

The Texas Cannabis Industry Association requested in its letter that a second round of applications be taken for the 40 companies that initially applied for but failed to obtain provisional licenses. The group specifically asks for at least nine additional licenses.

The requested number stems from a recommendation made by DPS’ chief financial officer, who noted in September 2015 that at least 12 dispensaries would need to be licensed to meet the needs of some 150,000 patients with intractable epilepsy in the state.

[…]

In October 2016, DPS officials reduced their recommended number of dispensaries to three.

A DPS memo sent to at least one cannabis company last November stated that the governor’s office had requested the reduction, along with other regulatory changes to the state’s fledgling medical-cannabis program.

The companies and investors who signed the Texas Cannabis Industry letter note that both DPS and the governor’s office “failed to provide a reasoned justification for this arbitrary choice limiting the number of licensees.”

You can see the letter here and some supporting information for it here. This bill was passed in 2015, and we were supposed to have all these dispensaries set up by September 1 of this year. Obviously, there are more important issues to worry about right now, but for those who may have benefited from the passing of this law, this is where it stands now.

The Observer talks to Kim Ogg

A good read:

Kim Ogg

You decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Jeff Sessions has signaled that he seeks to ramp up the war on drugs. What power does the federal government hold over your policy decisions?

I enjoy total discretion under Texas law as to who I charge and with what crime. The federal government has never been able or even really wanted to influence local prosecutors in terms of individual charging decisions. I don’t fear Sessions’ interference, although I think that states — certainly states where marijuana is legal — may face states’ rights battles with the federal government.

What pushback have you faced in Texas?

The lieutenant governor accused me of creating a sanctuary city. I think he’s looking to pick a fight with Houston. It seemed like a partisan attack more than a substantive one. He said Houston would become a drug-user sanctuary, and then I heard the same language being used by [DA] Brett Ligon of Montgomery County. They have the same political consultant, Allen Blakemore.

I think it was posturing simply because I did something that was popular and pragmatic. The program will save about $27 million a year — either save it or redirect it. I think this presents a clear and present threat to the Republican power structure, the fact that local Democratic government in Harris County is moving forward on this reform agenda that has bipartisan support. They’ve got an eye toward the 2018 election cycle.

Will this attack have any impact on Harris County? Or is this all just noise and politics?

Anything is possible, but the evidence will speak for itself. In the first six weeks of the program we’ve diverted 576 people [from jail], and the savings is over $1.5 million. The program will rise and fall based on whether we’re continuing to save lives and money. Of those 576 people that have been diverted so far, I know that none of them have lost their job because of an arrest for a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. I know that none of them have been turned away from a housing opportunity because of the marijuana conviction. So far, so good on both the human and the fiscal front.

There’s more, so go read the rest. One thing to observe, eight months into Ogg’s first term of office, is how tranquil things have been. Kim Ogg has cleaned house, made major changes to how low-level drug cases are handled, has sided with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the county’s bail practices, and inherited a controversial murder case (David Temple) that requires a retry–or-dismiss decision. Yet so far there has been little controversy, and basically no news stories of the “what is going on with the DA’s office” variety. She’s had a lot to do, she’s had a lot that she wanted to do and promised to do, and so far she’s done it with a minimum of fuss. That’s quite an accomplishment.

That said, once the Legislature is out and election season kicks in, the politics of this will get interesting. Ogg is in opposition to Republican judges and County Commissioners on the bail issue, and she opposes the “sanctuary cities” law, which will put her even more in Dan Patrick’s crosshairs. And not to put too fine a point on it, but with Annise Parker in the private sector (modulo a decision on her part to run for County Judge next year), Kim Ogg is now the most high profile gay person holding political office in Texas. That in and of itself would make her a target. Don’t be surprised when – not if – she is prominently featured in some ugly attack ads next year.

Where are the marijuana bills?

There have been no hearings on two bills to expand the usage of medical marijuana in Texas.

[Dr. Robert S.] Marks was among about two dozen advocates for so-called medical marijuana, including health-care professionals and patients, who gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday. They said they are hoping to jump-start momentum for two bills — Senate Bill 269 and House Bill 2107 — that would make the use of marijuana legal as a treatment for any doctor-corroborated debilitating health condition, such as cancer, chronic pain, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The companion bills, filed more than two months ago, have languished in committees without being granted hearings as the clock ticks down on the current session of the state Legislature. SB 269 is in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, while HB 2107 is in the House Public Health Committee, chaired by state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo.

“Chairman Price, Chairman Schwertner, please schedule a hearing,” Keith Crook, a New Braunfels resident and military veteran, said during the event Tuesday. “Please take this first positive step to save lives.”

Crook and other participants said they have tried to contact Price and Schwertner but haven’t received responses. Neither Price nor Schwertner responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

Two years ago, Texas lawmakers approved what’s known as the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing oils made from cannabidiol for medical purposes. Cannabidiol, commonly called CBD, is found in marijuana plants but doesn’t produce euphoria or a high.

However, that law, which has yet to have any impact because the first Texas CBD dispensaries won’t be licensed until this summer, restricts the compound’s use only to certain patients suffering from a rare form of epilepsy, and only after they’ve first tried two conventional drugs that prove to be ineffective.

Advocates for medical marijuana said Tuesday that the Compassionate Use Act is so restrictive it’s useless for most people. They also said increased availability of medical marijuana is essential for Texans suffering from chronic pain and other debilitating health conditions, illustrating the point with their own wrenching personal stories and those of family members and friends.

Medical marijuana “is a life saver,” said Crook, who volunteers to help fellow veterans. “It is stopping people from putting guns in their mouths and pulling the triggers.”

See here for more on the 2015 Compassionate Use Act, which we knew at the time was a very limited step forward. There’s an increasing level of public support for marijuana use, but as yet that has not translated into legislation of any significance. There’s been one bill to reduce pot penalties that has been passed out of a House committee, and as the story notes another bill that would allow people to cite a doctor’s recommendation as “an affirmative defense” against prosecution that has had a hearing, but that’s it so far. Maybe these two bills will get hearings in due time, but that time is running short, and the deadline for bills to be passed out of committee will be upon us before you know it. I don’t really know why the Lege is so reluctant to engage on this issue.

Marijuana decriminalization bill passes House committee

Progress.

Rep. Joe Moody

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee advanced a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday with the help of two Republicans.

With a 4–2 vote, the committee approved House Bill 81, authored by Chair Joe Moody, D-El Paso, at Monday’s hearing. Under HB 81, police would ticket someone caught with an ounce or less of marijuana rather than charging them with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail.

The measure passed with bipartisan support, but both no votes came from Republican freshmen — Cole Hefner, of Mt. Pleasant, and Mike Lang, of Granbury. Republicans Todd Hunter, of Corpus Christi, and Terry Wilson, of Marble Falls, joined the committee’s Democrats in advancing the bill beyond its first legislative hurdle.

“It is a fairly new concept in Texas not to criminalize conduct,” Moody told the Observer. “Part of the problem has been just getting people comfortable with the idea of treating this differently than we have in the past.”

[…]

Last session, Moody carried a nearly identical measure. Several Republicans, including David Simpson and Bryan Hughes — both of whom are no longer in the House — signed on to Moody’s bill as co-authors in 2013, but no GOP member supported the measure as a joint author, which is a greater show of support.

Moody will need all the help he can get from Republicans, including House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Vice Chair Hunter, who voted in support of the bill on Monday. The proposal now advances to the Calendars Committee, which determines the flow of legislation into the full House. Hunter chairs the powerful committee, which comprises 10 Republicans and five Democrats.

Hunter will play a major role in determining whether HB 81 makes it to the House floor — further than any bill lessening penalties for marijuana offenses has made it in the legislative process.

I feel like this bill will have a decent chance to pass the House – it should at least get a vote, unless it becomes clear the numbers aren’t there for it. The prospects seem longer in the Senate, but at least now-Senator Bryan Hughes ought to support it. Even if it doesn’t go the distance, each step farther improves the odds that something like it can get passed in a future session. Public support is ahead of the Lege on this issue, and it will likely take a few more cycles to catch up.

On pot and potties

Two more poll results to note.

Opposition to legal marijuana is dropping in Texas, with fewer than one in five respondents to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll saying they are against legalization in any form.

Support for marijuana only for medical use has dropped over the last two years, but support for legalization for private use — both in small amounts or in amounts of any size — has grown since the pollsters asked in February 2015.

“We’ve seen this movie before on a couple of social issues,” said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. He thinks the changes in Texas have more to do with shifting attitudes than with news of legalization in other states. “There’s a little bit of normalization. I don’t think this is a states-as-laboratories issue. Voters don’t care about that kind of stuff.”

Overall, 83 percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana for some use; 53 percent would go beyond legal medical marijuana to allow possession for any use, the poll found. Two years ago, 24 percent of Texans said no amount of marijuana should be legal for any use and another 34 percent said it should be allowed only for medical use.

[…]

Most poll respondents — 54 percent — said Texans should use the public restrooms based on their birth gender, while 31 percent said they should base their choice on their gender identities.

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would require people to use facilities in public buildings that match their ”biological sex” but would not regulate which restrooms transgender and other people should use in privately owned buildings. Republicans are more likely to agree with that position than Democrats: 76 percent said transgender people should use restrooms that match their birth gender, while 51 percent of Democrats said gender identity should be the standard.

Neither group is convinced this is an important issue, however. Overall, 39 percent of Texans said it’s important for the Legislature to pass a bathroom law, while 51 percent said it’s not important. While 24 percent rated passing a law “very important,” 38 percent said it is “not at all important.”

“The proponents of [Senate Bill 6] are onto something in saying that the basic underlying impulse in a conservative state like Texas is to think that bathroom access should be determined by birth gender,” Henson said.

“What seems to be a big part of the debate right now is whether the Legislature should be spending a lot of time on this issue,” he said.

Again, there’s a partisan split, but it’s not enormous: 44 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats said the issue is important; 49 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats said it’s not an important issue.

“On most social issues, when they come to live-and-let-live, when you talk about the government mandating something, conservatives get uncomfortable about that,” Shaw said. “When it comes to letting people live, Republicans are fine with that.”

On the first point, you can see why Kim Ogg is unlikely to care too much what Dan Patrick thinks about her new pot diversion policy. On the second point, you can see that while a lot of people may agree with Dan Patrick, most of them don’t care all that much about the bathroom issue. Which has been a big problem for him all along, overcoming the “there are more important things to deal with” argument. The good news is that he only has a limited amount of time to do that. The bad news is that we know he’ll never give up, so as long as he’s in office this will be something he pushes for. Changing minds and changing Lite Guvs are our two best options for countering him.

Ogg launches her pot prosecution reform program

We’ve been waiting for this.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County district attorney’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana drew reactions swift and strong Thursday from both sides of the debate.

District Attorney Kim Ogg made the announced Thursday backed by a bevy of local officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“The sky will not fall,” Acevedo said as he voiced his support. “There are already critics out there. We’ve been down this path before with my old department. Rather than see an uptick in crime, in the city of Austin we reduced violent crime between 2007 and 2014 by 40 percent.”

Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway, however, said the program seems similar to a program former District Attorney Devon Anderson put into place.

“At first blush, I’m not seeing a difference,” he said. “This is basically giving deferred adjudication up front.”

Yes, that’s my impression as well. This earlier story gives the details.

The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.

Ogg said the county has spent $25 million a year for the past 10 years locking up people for having less than 4 ounces of marijuana. She said those resources would be better spent arresting serious criminals such as burglars, robbers and rapists.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.

Since there is no arrest, there is no arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents connected to the encounter. The plan calls for officers to seize the marijuana and drop it off at a police station at the end of their shift, along with a record of the encounter in case the suspect does not take the class.

“You do not get charged with anything,” Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, who heads the DA’s trial bureau, said Wednesday. “You have a pathway where you can avoid going to court.”

[…]

At the sheriff’s office, the new policy will save up to 12 hours of processing time per month for as many as 1,000 suspects, a move that will ease the workload on administrators and jailers who transfer and process inmates, officials said.

“We’re really encouraged by these swift actions by the district attorney,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan. “And we are looking forward to working with Harris County’s criminal justice leadership identifying common-sense solutions to our broken criminal justice system.”

Sullivan said the move would likely not affect the jail population significantly, since most misdemeanor marijuana offenders move quickly in and out of jail. On Wednesday, just 12 people were jailed on misdemeanor marijuana offenses and unable to make bail, he said.

Elected district attorneys are given wide latitude in their discretion about how to enforce laws in their jurisdictions. Diversion programs, such as drug courts, have been widely used across Texas, and Austin has launched a “cite and release” program in which low-level drug offenders are given tickets and required to appear in court.

Under the new local program, police would identify a suspect to make sure they do not have warrants or other legal issues, then would offer them the option of taking the drug education class. If the suspect takes the class, the drugs are destroyed and the agreement is filed away.

A suspect would be able to take the class over and over again regardless of past criminal history, officials said.

The new program will keep police on the streets longer each day and reduce costs for lab testing of the drugs, Mitcham said.

If the suspect does not take the class, the contraband will be tested, and prosecutors will file charges and issue an arrest warrant. Offenders could then face up to one year in jail if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.

The model to think about here is traffic tickets – speeding, running a stop sign, that sort of thing. You get a ticket instead of getting arrested (generally speaking, of course), and you have various options for disposing of the ticket without it appearing on your record. As with speeding tickets but unlike the program put in place by former DA Devon Anderson, you can get a do-over if you get cited again. Given all the strains on the jail lately, keeping some number of mostly harmless potheads out of jail, while keeping cops on the street instead of hauling said potheads downtown for booking, sure seems like a win to me.

As for Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon, whose press release is here, last I checked Montgomery County was not part of Harris County. State law allows for police departments to write citations for low-level drug busts instead of making arrests, and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in how they handle criminal charges. He’s as free to do his thing as Kim Ogg is to do hers, as long as the voters approve. Well, as long as the Lege approves as well, which given that Dan Patrick is having the vapors over this, could change. As we are seeing with many things, the Dan Patricks are out of step with the mainstream. It may take awhile, but that will catch up to them eventually. The Press and Grits for Breakfast have more.

Kim Ogg’s swearing in

New DA Kim Ogg took her oath of office at an earlier time than the other Democratic elected officials, then had a more celebratory followup event afterward.

Kim Ogg

Ogg, who defeated incumbent Republican Devon Anderson in November, was first sworn into office just after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.

But Monday’s event gave Ogg the opportunity to thank the people who supported her during her campaign and on the path ahead.

” ‘So how does it feel to be the Harris County DA?’ That is the question that nearly everyone is asking. The answer is gratitude,” she said.

She reiterated many of her campaign promises, such as ending the jailing of suspects in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Ogg plans to implement what is essentially a “cite and release” program in which police officers would ticket offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana.

She also pledged to increase transparency in police shootings and to ramp up prosecutions of burglars and white-collar criminals.

[…]

During the inauguration ceremony, Ogg said she would seek justice above all, even convictions.

She elicited thunderous applause when she promised to uphold the Michael Morton Act, a 2014 law named after a Williamson County man who was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife but was exonerated in 2011 by DNA evidence.

The law requires prosecutors to share evidence with defense attorneys.

Ogg said she would restore integrity back into the DA’s Office by treating all crime victims with dignity, by using taxpayer money wisely and recognizing mental illness as a public health concern.

“Welcome to a new era of criminal justice,” Ogg said.

Not a whole lot new here – this is all stuff Ogg campaigned on. It’s all a matter of how she goes about it and how effective she is at achieving the goals she has set. But in case you were wondering why the other story only mentioned Ogg in passing, now you know.

Pot bills get their own post

They got their own story in the Trib, so why not their own post.

Zonker

Texas lawmakers across the state say they want leniency in how the state prosecutes marijuana crimes. In an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith Monday, State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said he thinks the Legislature could decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana next year, especially after several states did so on Election Day.

“We’re spending our tax dollars on incarcerating [people that don’t deserve to be incarcerated] because they got caught with a small amount of marijuana,” said Isaac, whose district encompasses Texas State University. “These are people that we probably subsidize their public education, we probably subsidize where they went to a state school, and now they’re branded as a criminal when they go to do a background check.”

Isaac added that last session he was approached by state Rep. Joseph “Joe” Moody, D-El Paso, who asked Isaac to sign on to a decriminalization bill but didn’t because he “didn’t feel like it was the time.” During the interview Monday, however, Isaac said “it is the time now” and publicly pledged to sign on and work to get a bill passed that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Among the Texas proposals that have been filed thus far:

  • House Bill 58 by state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would create a specialty court for certain first-time marijuana possession offenders based on the principle that first-time defendants are often self-correcting. The measure is intended to conserve law enforcement and corrections resources, White said in a news release.
  • State Rep. Joseph “Joe” Moody, D-El Paso, filed House Bill 81, which aims to replace criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250. The bill also allows Texans to avoid arrest and possible jail time for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Moody authored a similar bill during the previous legislative session; it did not pass.
  • State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, filed House Bill 82, which aims to classify a conviction for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a Class C misdemeanor instead of Class B. However, if a person is convicted three times, it would revert back to a Class B misdemeanor. Dutton co-authored a similar bill last session with Moody.
  • State Sen. José Rodríguez filed Senate Joint Resolution 17, which would allow voters to decide whether marijuana should be legalized in Texas, following the pattern of a number of states.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 18, also authored by Rodríguez, would allow voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana for medical use if recommended by a health care provider. “It is long past time we allow the people to decide,” Rodríguez said in a statement.
  • Rodríguez also filed Senate Bill 170, which would change possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil one.

Some of this is a continuation of efforts from 2015, some of it is in recognition of the multiple pro-decriminalization referenda that passed in other states, and some of it is from the desire to save a few pennies on law enforcement and criminal justice. I don’t care about the motive, I applaud the direction. As was the case in 2015, the main (though not only) obstacle is likely to be Greg Abbott, who was not interested in anything more than the meager cannobinoid oil bill that passed during that session. Typically, Abbott has had nothing to say about whether he remains firmly anti-pot or not. We’ll have to see what the lobbyists can do with him. For those of you who want to see changes, these are the bills to follow for now.

Checking in with Kim Ogg

That’s District Attorney-elect Kim Ogg now.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, still hoarse from shouting over the jubilant victory party crowd after winning her race for Harris County District Attorney, said Wednesday that her first order of business would be to evaluate and secure all of the evidence used in thousands of pending criminal cases.

Ogg, who will take over the largest district attorney’s office in Texas on Jan. 1, hopes to ward off the problems of unauthorized evidence destruction that emerged after it was discovered that deputies at the Precinct 4 Constable’s Office threw away evidence in hundreds of cases. Scores of cases that may have been affected have yet to be resolved.

“It’s so we know that cases that are pled or tried, after I take office, have the real evidence to back them up,” she said Wednesday.

[…]

“It’s a new day in Harris County,” [Tyler Flood, president of Harris County’s Criminal Lawyers Association,] said “I’m hoping Kim will bring transparency to a very secretive regime.”

Ogg sketched out broad agenda items Wednesday but said little about specific plans or possible command staff. She said she is putting together a transition team and was not ready to announce who would be helping her helm the agency, which employs about 600 people including 300 lawyers.

In addition to evaluating the security and veracity of evidence, Ogg said she would be reviewing the pending capital murder cases, including a handful of death penalty cases currently scheduled to go to trial in 2017.

Under her administration, she said, a team of prosecutors will look at the evidence, both damning and mitigating, before deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

“It’s a grave responsibility to undertake taking somebody’s life,” she said. “And I want more minds, and hearts, looking at these cases than just mine. So we’ll have a team.”

Ogg had the second-biggest day in Harris County on Tuesday, winning with 696,054 votes. That’s about 8,000 behind Hillary Clinton, and it means that like Clinton she received a fair number of crossovers. Getting a big vote total like that is both a mandate and a higher expectation level, so there are going to be a lot of eyes on Kim Ogg and what she does.

Not just locally, either. The Harris County DA’s race had a national spotlight on it going into Tuesday. A lot of that attention had to do with the DA’s prosecution of marijuana cases; Ogg as we know has outlined broad reforms for how cases like those will be handled. If she is successful at implementing those policies, it will be a big change and will likely have the effect of reducing the county’s jail population. I for one am looking forward to seeing her get started on that.

Ogg will have a lot on her plate from day one. There was a lot of turnover at the DA’s office after Pat Lykos won in 2008, and I expect there will be a lot more – some voluntary, some not – now that Ogg has won. For some insight on that, I recommend you read what former ADA (now defense attorney) Murray Newman says, from before and after the election. Transitions like this are opportunities for some people to settle scores and get grievances off their chests. That will likely result in a story or two that will be unfavorable to both Anderson and Ogg. I hope we can all keep people’s possible motivations in mind when we read those stories. Be that as it may, there will be a lot of new faces and new procedures at the DA’s office come January, and there will inevitably be some bumps in the road. How well Ogg manages the transition will go a long way towards setting the tone and laying the groundwork for implementing the real changes she wants to make.

One more thing: We all know that Ogg is a lesbian. Devon Anderson got into some hot water late in the campaign for bringing that up during a podcast interview. It hadn’t come up in either campaign before, and the vast majority of people in Harris County don’t care about anyone’s sexual orientation. But a few people with loud voices care A LOT about this sort of thing, and with Annise Parker back in the private sector (for now, at least), Kim Ogg is now the most high-profile elected official in Texas who is also a member of the LGBT community. That means she is the latest monster under Steve Hotze‘s bed, and she will be a target for people like Hotze and the hateful crap he likes to spew. I don’t know how that will play out, which is to say I don’t know how many people outside of Hotze’s little fever swamp will hear or care about anything he says, but I do feel confident saying that at some point during Ogg’s first term in office, he or someone like him will say or do something sufficiently disgusting that the rest of us will be forced to take notice. Be ready for it, that’s all I’m saying. The Press has more.

Reducing pot prosecutions one county at a time

Some Texas cities are taking direct action to dial back the drug wars and reduce their jail population.

Zonker

As lawmakers have wrestled in recent years with easing restrictions on marijuana use – an issue they likely will confront again when they convene in January – prosecutors in the state’s most populated areas are relaxing their pursuit of cases that involve recreational amounts of the drug.

An American-Statesman analysis shows those practices are resulting in a spike of marijuana dismissals in Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis and Tarrant counties. In each of the five counties, the rate of dismissal has risen since 2011, dramatically in some places. The trend also appears to be playing out statewide, where 23 percent of all misdemeanor marijuana cases were dismissed in 2011. In 2015, nearly a third were.

Yet that doesn’t mean Texas is witnessing de facto legalization: the number of new misdemeanor pot cases filed by police has stayed relatively constant.

The rate of dismissals is increasing fastest in North Texas. According to data kept by the Texas Office of Court Administration, Tarrant County prosecutors went from dismissing just 9 percent of cases five years ago to 24.3 percent last year. In Dallas County, the dismissal rate more than doubled, from 18 percent in 2011 to 41 percent last year.

Someone nabbed with a small amount of weed in Harris County in 2011 had about a 1 in 5 chance of getting the case dismissed; now it’s about 2 in 5 after officials developed a deferral program in which defendants have their cases thrown out if they meet certain qualifications.

In Travis County, prosecutors in recent years also have dismissed a greater percentage of marijuana cases. But much like in Bexar County, the frequency of dismissals was already significantly higher than in other counties.

For instance, Travis County in 2011 dismissed 42.6 percent of all resolved cases, compared to a statewide average of 22.9 percent.

Most of this is just due to prosecutors not wanting to pursue such minor offenses, and who can blame them? It’s not a substitute for policy, or a change in state law that would institutionalize this behavior. That’s still needed, even if the Legislature isn’t ready for it.

Here come the cannabis growers

For medicinal purposes only.

About 60 miles north of Dallas, amid green fields in the town of Gunter, population 1,486, Texas Cannabis CEO Patrick Moran has optioned to buy a former cotton gin, where he plans to grow the Cannabis sativa plant, known more commonly as marijuana.

The businessman and attorney is positioning himself at the forefront of what he estimates will be a $900 million a year industry in Texas – the recently legalized market for treating intractable epilepsy with a strain of marijuana that eases seizures without getting patients high.

Texas, as it turns out, may be one of the best states in the nation to grow pot. While the state has one of the most stringent medical usage laws in the country, it is setting up some of the cheapest licensing fees and one of the least restrictive markets for pot growers in the U.S.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation last year allowing the state to license businesses to grow, process or dispense nonintoxicating marijuana or cannabis for medical use beginning next year. Moran wants to do all three with Texas Cannabis, cultivating marijuana from seed to sale.

Moran is waiting on the state to set up its registry, slated to go live by June 2017, to put in his application. He plans to use that former cotton gin, which has sat dormant for 40 years, to cultivate, extract and dispense cannabidiol oil, or CBD oil, from low-THC cannabis plants – just around the corner from the city hall in Gunter. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive component that gives users a high when they smoke traditional marijuana.

The new market is being called the green rush.

“There’s a whole other industry that is being birthed in this country, just like what happened with the dot-com boom,” Moran said. “I think it’s once in a lifetime.”

[…]

The Texas law established narrow parameters on the type of cannabis that can be dispensed, who can take the medication and which physicians can prescribe, said Frank Snyder, a Texas A&M law professor who teaches the state’s first course on marijuana law, policy and business. But it doesn’t limit the number of competitors who can grow, extract or dispense.

“The process for getting a license and beginning to cultivate is probably the most liberal law of any of the medical marijuana states that I’m familiar with right now, in terms of putting up the fewest barriers to entry,” Snyder said.

Applicants aren’t required to have vast cannabis industry experience. They simply have to show they have the technological ability to grow, extract or dispense the product by having experience in related fields, such as cultivation, analytical laboratory methods and handling confidential patient information.

They also must show they can obtain the locations, resources and personnel necessary for operations, maintain accountability of all materials and have the financial ability to keep going for two years.

Regulations issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety in January also set fairly low licensing fees.

A cannabis operation seeking to become licensed in Texas must pay a $6,000 application fee to the state. Businesses will have to renew those licenses and pay another $6,000 application fee every two years.

That compares favorably with fees charged by some other states. Massachusetts, for instance, requires a medical marijuana dispensary to pay a $50,000 registration fee every year. Hawaii charges only a $5,000 application fee but requires a dispensary applicant to have at least $1 million in reserves, plus an additional $100,000 on hand for each retail site. Florida requires an applicant seeking a cultivation license to secure a $5 million performance bond.

Colorado, widely regarded as having some of the nation’s most permissive marijuana laws, charges as much as $25,000 in upfront application and licensing fees, depending on the type and volume of pot sold, plus additional fees.

See here for the background. One can look at the inexpensive fees for the grow/extract/dispense licenses and see low barriers to entry for cannabis entrepreneurs, and one can see a missed opportunity for generating revenue, since many of the arguments for legalizing pot in Texas come down to revenue in one form or another. What the Lege actually legalized is pretty limited, and some advocates for medical marijuana opposed the bill that got passed on the grounds that it didn’t really do anything for a class of people who need it. As such, I’m not sure how big or lucrative this business is going to be just yet. That said, I’m sure this issue will continue to be discussed in the Legislature, so the possibility of expansion will be there as well. We’ll see what the financial figures for these businesses look like once they’re fully operational.

It’s not easy going green

And by “going green” I mean legalizing pot, at least in Texas.

Zonker

Advocacy groups and lawmakers say marijuana policy reform in Texas could be the fiscally responsible thing to do in light of the state’s decreasing oil and gas revenues.

Texas legislators should look to marijuana policy reform to save, and even make, money in the face of looming budget shortfalls, said SXSW panelist Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, in front of what he called the “wake and bake crowd” Tuesday morning.

“It’s not an ideological barrier,” said Martin. “Anything that’s going to move is going to move because of money.”

The “Turn Texas Green” panel brought legislators and advocates together to to discuss how the Lone Star State could legalize pot for medical or even recreational use.

Zoe Russell, from the Houston nonprofit Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), said some “establishment” Republicans already “see the writing on the wall” with decriminalization policies at the local level. In 2015, Harris County’s Republican DA implemented a “First Chance” policy allowing non-violent offenders with small amounts of marijuana to be ticketed, rather than arrested.

But so far, few statewide elected officials have been willing to put their names on marijuana legislation, Russell said.

“Behind closed doors, they’re really supportive of ideas like this,” Russell told the audience of around 15 or so. “[But] they’re scared of their shadow.”

As Texas’ oil and gas revenues drop dramatically, panelists said the state’s money woes may override the squeamishness many legislators have about legalizing weed.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for Phillip Martin and Progress Texas – the argument that Texas could make some money by legalizing pot and that this would help with the current budget situation is a complete nonstarter. I say this because advocates for expanded gambling, both the slot-machines-at-horse-tracks and the casinos groups, have been making this same argument for well more than a decade and during the budget crunches of 2003 and 2011, and they have nothing to show for it. If there’s one thing we should have learned from those past experiences, it’s that not only is the Republican leadership in this state unreceptive to proposals that would add new revenue streams in Texas, they are actively hostile to them. They’re not interested in more revenue. Budget crunches are to them opportunities to slash spending. It really is an ideological barrier. I don’t see that changing until the leadership we have in Texas changes. I wish that weren’t the case, but I see no evidence to suggest otherwise.

It also pains me to say that even under the most optimistic scenarios, the amount of revenue Texas would likely gain from legalizing and taxing marijuana is way too small to have any effect on a real budget shortfall. The state of Colorado took in $125 million in pot tax revenue in 2015, which sounds like a lot until you remember that the Texas budget is roughly a thousand times bigger than that for a year. This is like saying that Colorado pot revenue is a penny to Texas’ ten dollars. Putting this into a more workable context, $125 of pot tax revenue represents about two percent of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education in the 2011 budget. I’m the first to agree that in a crisis situation, every little bit helps. The point I’m making is that this really would be a little bit.

Which is not to say that there are no economic arguments to be made for at least loosening pot laws, if not outright legalizing it. The case that Texas will spend a lot less money, at the state and county level, with smarter pot laws has some traction and a chance to gain ground. You’re still going to have to overcome the fear that not punishing all these potheads will lead to a spike in crime – it won’t, but you’re going to have to convince some people of that – as well as the strong distaste a lot of people have for pot and the people who indulge in it, but the prospect of spending less will help. (You also have to overcome the fact that some of our legislators are complete idiots, but that’s more of an electoral issue.) Here I think the short-term potential is greater at the county level, since as Harris County has demonstrated some of what can be done is a simple matter of discretion on the part of one’s police department and District Attorney, but the Lege is where it’s at for the longer term, and the real gain. I wish everyone involved in this fight good luck, and I hope we all remembered to vote for candidates who will pursue smarter laws and strategies regarding marijuana in the primaries.

Anderson updates pot prosecution policy

Good.

Devon Anderson

Small amounts of marijuana now mean a citation, not a ride to jail, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said Thursday.

The county’s top prosecutor outlined changes to a pilot plan for low-level offenders she implemented last year, one that she called a “huge cultural change for Harris County.”

Instead of arresting first offenders caught with less than 2 ounces of marijuana, all police officers across Harris County will offer a diversion program and release the suspect, Anderson said.

The change, which will become mandatory Jan. 1, means suspects who agree to the diversion program no longer will be taken to jail, go to court or face charges if they stay clean and complete classes or community service.

[…]

For the past year, those arrested by another law enforcement agency – like campus police, a constable’s office or officers in other municipalities like Bellaire or Pasadena – would be taken to a police station, probably booked into a jail cell and later appear in a courtroom. Then they could agree to take advantage of the program.

In the past year, 2,270 people have been enrolled. Of those, 78 percent were arrested, transported to a police station and saw a judge before being offered the program.

There are more benefits, which Anderson listed, when suspects are ticketed instead of transported.

“It frees up space in jail. It minimizes the administrative burden that officers face when filing charges. It reduces the cost for prosecution and court proceedings. And of course, it gives the offender an opportunity to have a completely clean record,” she said. “When we don’t offer it until after the offender is charged, we lose a lot of the best benefits of the program.”

As noted, this is a modification to a policy Anderson proposed last year, which in turn was based on a plan put forth by Kim Ogg. I thought Anderson’s original plan should have gone farther – more like Ogg’s, to be precise – but better late than never. I hope this works as advertised, and I look forward to having more conversations about this kind of policy going forward.

2015 Texas Lyceum poll

Issues first, election stuff to come. From the press release:

The 2015 Texas Lyceum Poll Finds: 

  • Immigration remains the most important issue facing the state and Texans support lawmakers’ increased spending on border security.
  • Texans’ views on  gay marriage are changing. Forty nine percent of Texans support gay marriage – up from 29 percent in 2009.
  • Experience with  race-based discriminationshifts greatly depending on the racial or ethnic background of the person polled.
  • Footballrules in Texas. Despite national poll numbers revealing 40 percent of Americans would discourage their children from playing youth football72 percent of Texans would encourage children to play football.
  • A growing number of Texans, 46 percent, support legalizing the use of marijuana (up by 13 percent since 2011) and among those who oppose legalization, 57 percent support decriminalization.
  • Texans are not overly concerned about climate change, but a majority (67 percent) would support new regulations on private companies.

 

2015 Texas Lyceum Poll Infographic

AUSTIN — An independent statewide poll conducted earlier this month (Sept. 8-21) by the Texas Lyceum, the state’s premier non-partisan, nonprofit statewide leadership group, suggests that Texans believe immigration is the state’s number one issue, continue to love their football, have moderated their opinion on the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage over the years, and support some regulation to reduce global warming.

“As the Texas Lyceum celebrates its 35th anniversary, we are proud to conduct this public service offering the media, policymakers, scholars and the general public an annual snapshot of Texans’ views on key issues,” said 2015 Texas Lyceum President Jane Cummins. “This year the Texas Lyceum held meetings focused on the Texas economy and the war on drugs, among other topics, and next year we will address the big business of football in Texas, showing our programs are on point with what Texans are talking about.”

Border Security / Immigration

Border security and/or immigration has remained one of the top three issues for Texans since the inception of the Lyceum Poll. This year the Lyceum Poll gauged Texans’ thoughts on two related policies – one state and the other federal. At the state level, a majority of Texans (62 percent) favor state lawmakers’ approval to spend $800 million on border security operations over the next two years.

Turning to federal policy, 65 percent of Texans approve of the federal government’s decision to halt deportations of undocumented immigrant youth who attend college or serve in the military while providing them with a work permit. Only 20 percent queried believe this policy did “a lot” to encourage illegal immigration.

Gay Marriage

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision over the summer that legalized marriage for gay and lesbian couples in all 50 states, more Texans favor allowing same sex marriage than say they oppose it. Our survey shows 49 percent of Texans favor gay marriage, up from 33 percent when asked a similar question in 2011. However, 40 percent are opposed to allowing gay and lesbian couples the right to marry legally.

Racial Discrimination

In light of recent national and Texas race-related controversies, the Lyceum Poll asked respondents two related questions: First, was there ever “a specific instance in which you felt discriminated against by the police because of your racial or ethnic background?” Second, was there ever, “a specific instance in which you felt discriminated against by an employer or a potential employer because of your racial or ethnic background?” Reviewing the total sample with regard to police discrimination, only 17 percent of Texans believed they were discriminated against by police because of their racial or ethnic background. However, on closer inspection, these numbers shift significantly according to the race or ethnicity of the respondent. Four percent of whites, 24 percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of black respondents said they had felt discriminated against by the police. This pattern held with regard to Texans’ attitudes about employer discrimination as well. Only 11 percent of whites indicated they had been discriminated against by an employer, while 27 percent of Hispanics and 42 percent of black Texans felt they had experienced a form of workplace discrimination.

Football Reigns

Despite growing national concern that children who suffer repeated head injuries from tackle football can sustain long-term brain damage, Texans would not discourage their children from playing the contact sport. In fact, 72 percent of those polled said they would encourage children to play football while only 21 percent would discourage it. These numbers contrast with a national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken last year showing that 40 percent of Americans would steer their children away from playing football due to concerns over concussions.

Legalizing / Decriminalizing Marijuana

As more states either decriminalize or legalize marijuana – with Texas lawmakers passing limited medical marijuana use this past legislative session – a majority of Texans don’t support legalization outright. The survey shows 50 percent of Texans are opposed to legalization, while 46 percent of Texas adults said that they would support legalizing the use of marijuana. However, the numbers are breaking in favor of legalization as support has gone up by 13 points when compared with a question asked in the 2011 Lyceum Poll. Meanwhile, among those who oppose legalization, 57 percent said they would support decriminalization. Specifically, this group agrees on “reducing the maximum punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a citation and a fine.”

Climate Change

Global warming is not a top concern for Texans. When asked if they personally worry about climate change, 50 percent say “only a little” or “not at all.” But when asked “would you support or oppose Congress passing new legislation that would regulate energy output from private companies in an attempt to reduce global warming,” 67 percent of Texans said they would support such regulation.

Daron Shaw, Ph.D., Professor at The University of Texas at Austin and a Texas Lyceum alumnus, oversaw the poll, which was conducted September 8-21, 2015, and queried 1,000 adult Texans. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points. Dr. Shaw and Texas Lyceum Research Director Joshua Blank, used the latest statistically-advisable polling techniques: live interviewers contacted respondents both by landline as well as cell phones (40 percent) and administered the survey in the respondent’s language of choice (English or Spanish).

The executive summary is here. A couple of points of interest:

On immigration: “The second policy that we queried asked respondents to evaluate the policy by which the Department of Justice stops the deportation of any undocumented immigrant youth who attends college or serves in the military and provides them with a legal work permit that is renewable. Despite the perception that Texans have particularly harsh attitudes on illegal immigration, 65% of Texas adults said that they supported this policy with only 28% expressing opposition. Majorities of Democrats (81%), Republicans (54%), and independents (62%) expressed support, as did majorities of Anglos (58%), blacks (63%), and Hispanics (75%).

On same sex marriage: “Majorities of Democrats (69%), Hispanics (53%), and Texans 18 to 29 years old (65%) and 30 to 44 years old (52%) said that they favored allowing gay marriage; pluralities of independents (46%) and Anglos (47%) also said that they favored allowing gay marriage. A majority of Republicans (58%) and a plurality of black respondents (45%) said that they oppose allowing gay marriage.” I would add that only the 65-and-over crowd was truly opposed (34% in favor to 53% against). The 45-64 group was barely in opposition, 43% yes and 44% no.

On marijuana: “A majority of Democrats support legalization (54% support; 42% oppose) while a majority of Republicans oppose legalization (37% support; 61% oppose). Fifty percent of whites support legalization while 51% of blacks and 56% of Hispanics stand in opposition. Eighteen to 29 year olds are the only age group in which a majority supports legalization (66%). Interestingly, when it comes to Democrats and Republicans in opposition to legalization, both groups favor decriminalization (60% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans). Majorities of whites (59%), blacks (52%), and Hispanics (56%) initially opposed to legalization are supportive of decriminalization, as are all age groups.”

On climate change: “Not surprisingly, given the partisan dimensions of this issue, 84% of Democrats said that they would support [new legislation that would regulate energy output from private companies in an attempt to reduce global warming] (60% said that they would strongly support them), while 45% of Republicans said that they would support such regulations, with 48% saying that they would be opposed. These results still display a rather surprising willingness among Texas Republicans to consider regulation to combat global climate change.”

On the Affordable Care Act: “Like in past polling, Democrats held a much more positive attitude toward the ACA than did Republicans. While 63% of the former hold a positive view of the ACA (up from 58% in 2014), 76% of the latter hold a negative opinion (down slightly from 80%). Whites continue to hold negative opinions towards the healthcare law with only 26% expressing a favorable opinion, while a majority of blacks hold a positive view (65%). Hispanics were evenly divided in their opinions of the ACA, with 42% holding a favorable opinion and 39% holding an unfavorable opinion.”

Basically, outside of that last issue, the survey respondents were a lot less in agreement with the Republicans that dominate state government than they were with Democrats. Needless to say, that discrepancy is a function of who actually votes, and increasingly when they vote; Republican primary voters are far more extreme than Republican non-primary voters. The question is when election results will more closely reflect this. Perhaps the higher turnout of a contested Presidential primary will draw some more moderate Republicans to the polls in March; that won’t have any statewide effect but it might make the Lege a pinch saner. Beyond that, all I know is that it won’t happen in its own.

The Lyceum will be releasing election poll data today. I’ll link to it later, and will have a separate post tomorrow.

Ogg announces for DA

Rematch time.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, the Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for district attorney last year, launched her second bid for the office Friday, promising to pursue violent criminals, de-emphasize misdemeanor marijuana possession cases and aggressively combat prosecutorial misconduct.

Ogg took a series of jabs at how the incumbent Republican, Devon Anderson, has chosen to prioritize some cases over others, hinting that a rise in violent crime was being met with over-incarceration of low level, mostly black and Hispanic, nonviolent offenders.

Challenger Ogg said she spent the time since her last campaign researching law enforcement programs that are tested and proven elsewhere in the nation, and this time she is better equipped with programs that will turn the office around.

In her kickoff event across from the Harris County criminal courthouse, Ogg criticized Anderson for lenient handing of a misconduct case against a Houston Police homicide detective charged with failing to investigate 24 murder cases involving black and Hispanic victims.

She also accused Anderson of making a novice mistake, jumping to conclusions about the motive of an African-American suspect charged in the shooting of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Without evidence, Ogg said, the DA linked the suspect to a legitimate civil rights movement.

“It’s the DA alone who determines who will be charged and with what crime. The DA holds the key to the front door of the courthouse and the back door of the jail,” she said, “a lawyer’s job boils down to judgment.”

Anderson, according to her challenger, “lacks the experience and judgment to successfully carry out the duties of district attorney.”

Game on already, it would seem. Ogg ran slightly ahead of the Democratic baseline in the dumpster fire that was 2014. A Presidential year, as 2016 will be, ought to give her a boost. Ogg hit some themes from 2014 in her announcement – it wasn’t in the story, but I figure marijuana prosecution policy will come up sooner or later. I’m not paying very close attention to 2016 just yet – we still have to survive this year, after all – but as filing season begins four weeks after Election Day – before the runoffs, in other words – it’s hard to avoid. Dems still need to fill out the rest of the countywide slate, and I’d prefer sooner rather than later. Now that Ogg has made her entry official, I hope candidates for other offices will follow.

Eltife not running for re-election

He will be missed.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

After 23 years in elected office, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he will not run for re-election in 2016 to devote more time to family, friends, his work and his community.

Eltife said he’s loved every minute of his service in the Senate and is proud to have worked with fellow Senators and their staffs. But he said he did not want to hold a title or office without being 1,000 percent committed to the job and fighting for Senate District 1.

“After 23 years, I have to honestly say I need to take a step back, spend more time with my family and friends and recharge my batteries,” Eltife said during an Editorial Board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I will continue to be involved and volunteer at the local and state level to try to help others.”

Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are hard-working, well-intentioned people who sacrifice time from their families and lives to try to make Texans’ lives better, he said.

“I’m going to stay plugged in,” he said. “I want to make sure northeast Texas voices are heard, and I don’t have to be in public office to do that.”

[…]

Eltife said when he arrived his primary focus in Austin was killing bad legislation that preserved local control. But he proved effective navigating bills and lending helping hands to other legislators.

He was instrumental in the creation of a pharmacy school and doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas at Tyler, expansion of craft beer brewers’ access to the market and, most recently, pass of a bill to give epileptics in Texas access to cannabis-based oils.

Those and other bills made a difference for his district, the state and Texans, he said.

Eltife said hearing the testimony from families of suffering epileptic children motivated him to pass the bill they saw as their only hope.

Eltife’s drive to make a difference many times has left him as a lone wolf legislator.

Eltife has been watching, not so quietly, as the state’s debt more than doubled since he arrived in Austin to about $46 billion from $17 billion.

The state used debt to fund road projects and meet needs he said could have been funded if legislators had been honest with Texans and used their political capital to make tough decisions.

Eltife said doing the right thing can mean going against the party line. He’s worked with both sides of the isle to move legislation he felt would benefit his district and the state.

Sen. Elife also spent a lot of time presiding over the Senate in the latter years of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s tenure. By all accounts, the chamber ran a lot more smoothly with him wielding the gavel in Dew’s absence. The Trib adds on.

Several Republicans have already been mentioned as potential candidates for Eltife’s seat.

State Rep. David Simpson of Longview will announce later this month that he is launching a bid for the job.

“Advancing liberty and promoting prosperity in Texas will take conservative leaders who are ready to tell the truth,” Simpson said in a Sunday statement. “We are excited to announce our campaign for Senate District 1 and intend to officially launch our efforts on June 22.”

Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who was waiting to see whether Eltife would run for re-election, is also considered a likely contender for the post. Thomas Ratliff, the outgoing vice chairman of the State Board of Education, has said he would not rule out a run for the seat if Eltife gave it up. And Dennis Golden, a Carthage optometrist, has said he intends to run.

Eltife has often been a swing vote in a Texas Senate dominated by Republicans but governed by rules that give political minorities more power than their numbers would suggest. It takes consent from 60 percent of the state’s 31 senators to bring most proposals up for debate; issues that can only attract small majorities often languish as a result. And Eltife has found himself in the position of holding such proposals hostage more than once.

He was a rare Republican vote against repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools and who have lived here for more than three years to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. That repeal never made it to the full Senate. He opposed so-called sanctuary cities legislation that would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws. And he was a no vote on one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet bills, which would have allowed businesses to direct their taxes to scholarship funds for private school students.

Early in the legislative session that ended June 1, Eltife tried to tap the brakes on what he called “a bidding war” between the House and Senate over tax cuts, insisting that lawmakers should be using surplus funds for deferred maintenance, debt reduction and the like. The tax cuts went through, but so did some of what he had pushed for. By the end of the session, he declared himself satisfied with that partial victory.

This is a deep red district (Romney 72.1% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of the Republican primary. Thomas Ratliff would be fine if he ran. David Simpson is an odd duck, a teabagger but not quite cut from the same cloth as the rest of them. He’s just unpredictable enough to at least be a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end on a regular basis. Bryan Hughes would be bad, and I can’t imagine anyone else would be any better. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. The one thing I do expect is for there to be a lot of money spent on that campaign, mostly by outside groups. Good luck and best wishes for the next stage of your life, Sen. Eltife. Trail Blazers and RG Ratcliffe have more.

House approves limited medical marijuana bill

And there it is.

On a 96-34 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 339, from state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the House gives final passage in a follow-up vote, the measure will be Gov. Greg Abbott’s to sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature. If it becomes law, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Before the vote, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s House sponsor, repeatedly stressed to House members that the product she was trying to legalize should not be confused with marijuana.

“It is also not something you can get high on. It has a low risk of abuse,” Klick said. “This is not something that can be smoked. It is ingested orally.”

[…]

Several Republican lawmakers brought up those concerns during the House floor debate. At one point, over the shouts of House members booing, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, yelled, “This is a bad bill.”

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, and a House sponsor of the bill along with Klick, responded. “It is not a bad bill. It is a great bill and it is going to save lives.”

See here for the background. This is not a bad bill, but it’s not a great bill, either. It should do some good, and it’s a step in the right direction, but remember that some CBD proponents opposed this bill because it didn’t do very much for them. I hope the Lege is as kind to Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to reduce marijuana penalties, but if this is all we get, I won’t be surprised. A statement from RAMP is beneath the fold, and Trail Blazers and the Current have more.

(more…)

Senate approves limited medical marijuana bill

Wow again.

Epilepsy patients in Texas would have access to medicinal oils containing a therapeutic component found in marijuana under legislation the state Senate passed Thursday.

Senators voted 26-5 to pass Senate Bill 339, by Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, which would legalize oils containing cannabidiol (CBD), a component found in marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. If the measure passes the House, by 2018, the state would be able to regulate and distribute the oils to patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

“While the bill is not the full-scale medical marijuana bill that many advocate for, we recognize that change takes time and this is certainly a step in the right direction,” Phillip Martin, deputy director of the liberal group Progress Texas, said in a statement. “These bills are an important step and we are eager to see them set promptly on the calendars so they can be considered by the full Texas Legislature.”

Eltife’s proposal is the second marijuana-related bill to receive votes of support in as many days. On Wednesday night, a House committee voted 5-2 in favor of a measure that would legalize the possession and delivery of marijuana — a measure that looks unlikely to make it to the full House for a vote.

Meanwhile, a companion to Eltife’s bill – House Bill 892 from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth – passed out of a House committee earlier this week.

See here for the background. While it is the case that this bill is very limited, so much so that some advocates for medical marijuana oppose it, this is still a significant step. Getting this bill and Rep. Moody’s bill to reduce penalties on low-level pot possession would have a significant positive effect on Texas. I’m amazed in a good way that we’ve gotten this far.

One marijuana reform bill passes out of committee

This is a pleasant surprise.

Rep. Joe Moody

For the first time, a committee in the Legislature has approved a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana, a move advocates hailed as a milestone moment in Texas.

The state House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed House Bill 507 late Monday, just three days after narrowly voting it down.

The tally the second time around was 4-2, with tea party Republican David Simpson of Longview joining with three Democrats. One GOP member did not attend.

The measure, which would make possession of less than an ounce of pot a civil infraction instead of a class B misdemeanor, will now go to the committee that controls the floor calendar.

It will likely stay there, and has virtually no chance of becoming law in a deeply conservative Legislature.

Nevertheless, the committee’s decision speaks volumes on how far Texas has shifted on the controversial matter.

Bill sponsor Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said in a statement that “Texas cannot afford to continue criminalizing tens of thousands of citizens for marijuana possession each year.”

“We need to start taking a more level-headed approach,” Moody said. “It is neither fair nor prudent to arrest people, jail them, and give them criminal records for such a low-level, non-violent offense.”

[…]

In addition to Moody and Simpson, state Reps. Abel Herrero of Robstown and Terry Canales of Edinburg supported the bill. Plano Republicans Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen voted no.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this bill had been voted down 3-2 in committee on Friday, but Canales was absent and Herrero voted against it at that time, having some concerns about the bill that Moody was able to assuage. This bill may never gets on the calendar for a vote from the full House, but just getting it out of committee is a big step forward.

The other pot reform bills are unlikely to fare as well.

The chair of the committee that controls the fate of medical marijuana legalization in Texas said Monday that “there are still a lot of questions to be answered” about the legislation, indicating it is unlikely to win approval before next week’s deadline.

“The bills need a lot of time and attention,” state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, said in an interview outside a forum here about health issues in the Legislature.

The House Public Health Commitee chair’s comments came after a discussion in which she said she had heard “compelling” testimony about possible benefits of marijuana for medical conditions but wanted to study how legalization has played out in states such as Colorado and California.

She would not declare the bill dead in the interview, but repeated the state was at the beginning of a “long process” toward legalization.

See here, here, and here for the background. The deadline for bills to pass out of committee for consideration on the floor is Monday, so you do the math. If you had 2015 for medical marijuana legalization in the office betting pool, you may as well use those betting slips as rolling paper, because you’re not getting any other value out of them. A statement from RAMP on Rep. Moody’s bill is here, and the Current has more.

UPDATE: Wow.

In a surprise move that supporters hailed as a historic victory, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved legislation Wednesday to make it legal to buy and sell marijuana in the state.

Two Republicans joined with the panel’s three Democrats in support, giving House Bill 2165 a decisive 5-2 victory.

The proposal, which would make Texas the fifth state in America to OK pot for recreational purposes, has virtually no chance of clearing any other hurdles on the path to becoming law in this year’s legislative session.

Still, advocates described the committee vote as a big step toward future success.

“Marijuana policy reform continues to make unprecedented progress this session,” Phillip Martin of the liberal group Progress Texas tweeted just after the vote.

Apparently, the Texas Compassionate Use Act also passed out of committee. Gotta say, I didn’t expect either of that. I don’t expect any of these bills to go farther than this, but still, a bridge has been crossed. It’s impressive.

Medical marijuana gets its committee hearing

Don’t know that it will get more than just that committee hearing, however.

House Bill 892 would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. By 2018, the measure would allow the state to regulate and distribute the oils to epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication. The measure was left pending by the House Committee on Public Health.

At the hearing, supporters of the proposal, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, recounted the seizures endured by children who they say could benefit from derivatives of medical marijuana. But opponents of the bill, including representatives of law enforcement agencies, expressed concerns that increased access to any component of marijuana would jeopardize public safety.

“This is a focused bill designed to give people with intractable epilepsy another option when others have failed,” the bill’s author, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, told the committee. “[CBD oils] have no street value, and these families have no other options.”

The representative’s interest in medical marijuana came after she met constituents in her district who have children suffering from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that begins in infancy.

“If CBD weren’t available in the number of states it is available in, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today,” said M. Scott Perry, a pediatric neurologist with Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, testifying in favor of the bill. “The human data on CBD use is very encouraging. What is frustrating is that I can’t prescribe CBD to patients in my state, in Texas.”

[…]

Opponents of the bill expressed concerns over public safety and increased recreational use of marijuana as an unwanted consequence of increasing access to CBD oils. Others worried that the products would be hard to regulate.

“I am concerned about the other children in the household getting ahold of this medication when the parents aren’t around,” said Denton County Sheriff William Travis, speaking on behalf of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. “As a father, I would do anything for my child. But putting low amounts of marijuana oil in a child’s body where the brain is not fully developed is not the way.”

The Texas Medical Association has made clear that it does not support legalizing marijuana for medical use. “There is no validated science to support its use in broad treatment,” the association said in a statement earlier this year.

But some medical marijuana advocates are still reluctant to support the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act, calling it appeasement legislation that would do little to help Texans with epilepsy — and nothing for those with other diseases, such as cancer, that can be treated with medical marijuana.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’m all about the science, but the TMA’s statement seem way too restrictive to me. Surely there are studies showing the efficacy of marijuana for some things. I favor a much broader loosening of marijuana laws than this, so I’m having a hard time understanding why this tiny baby step is so controversial. What are we really afraid of here? Unfair Park has more.

More on the Texas Compassionate Use Act

The Chron covers the legislation that has been introduced to loosen medical marijuana laws just a bit.

The twin bills, both authored by Republicans and supported by lawmakers across the aisle, await hearings in Senate and House subcommittees.

The bills are far more restrictive than those that legalized medical marijuana in 23 states, broad laws that in general green-light the marketing of “whole plant” products to a wide range of patients, such as those with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV and other illnesses.

The Texas bills would allow for the implementation of “compassionate use” of CBD oil by 2018, a move that would effectively bypass FDA drug trials, which can take as long as a decade.

“These are families that have run out of options,” said Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, a nurse and lead author of the House bill. “Other states have legalized CBD oil with promising results. We want Texans with intractable epilepsy to have that option.”

The bills face opposition from conservative lawmakers, who fear a yes vote might cast them as champions of marijuana, and from the Texas Medical Association, which is opposing the lack of testing available on CBD oil.

Even some parents of children with intractable seizures are against it, arguing their kids need higher levels of THC to make their convulsions stop, a dose ratio the Texas law wouldn’t allow. A botanical derived from plants, CBD oil would have to be calibrated from different batches to conform to the strict, low-THC ratio the Texas law would mandate.

It’s that very ratio that has made Dean Bortell an opponent of the Texas Compassionate Use Act.

His daughter Alexis, now 9, began having seizures at age 7, convulsing wildly and foaming at the mouth. The various medications doctors gave her actually made her condition worse, he said.

Bortell moved his family from the Dallas area to Colorado, becoming “medical refugees.”

Bortell said his daughter’s epilepsy now is well-controlled on CBD oil – $150 for a 40-day supply – but one of her doses contains more THC than would be allowed under the proposed Texas law. To get the right ratio, he must add pure THC oil to the CBD oil.

“If I got caught with that in Texas, I’d go to prison,” he said. “I’ve talked to tons of parents here in Colorado, and for many of them, the ratios in the Texas bills wouldn’t help their children because they require more THC. For no other medication does the law dictate dosing levels.”

See here for the background; most of what is in this story is also in the one I blogged about there. Time is beginning to get short for any bills that have not yet been heard in committee, so unless these bills get scheduled to be heard in the next couple of weeks, they won’t be going anywhere. One bill that has already gotten a hearing is Rep. Joe Moody’s bill to change possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty, like a traffic ticket. That bill has picked up some Republican cosponsors, which may be a sign that it could go the distance, or at least go farther. I’d like to see more done, and I’d go a lot farther on medical marijuana than the Compassionate Use Act, but this just doesn’t look to be the session for it.

Marijuana reform advocates get their day

This will be worth watching closely.

Rep. Joe Moody

Four proposals to relax penalties for possessing pot have been scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, setting up what is sure to be a closely-watched debate in the middle of the legislative session.

It will not be the first Texas committee hearing on marijuana bills, which historically have been introduced and heard, but ultimately killed. This time, however, optimistic supporters will benefit from the makeup of the committee, which this year counts three Democrats and a pro-legalization Republican among its seven members. The panel is led by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.

“There’s no question that we’re hopeful that this committee will be especially open to considering these bills,” said Phillip Martin, deputy director of Progress Texas, an Austin-based liberal organization that is helping lead the push. “A lot of the legislators on the committee understand the importance of the issue.”

The legislation is still unlikely to win final approval in the conservative-dominated Legislature, but Martin and other members of the bipartisan Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition say committee approval would represent a step forward in a years-long process.

The coalition has collected nearly 15,000 signatures of support and plan to deliver them to the Capitol on Wednesday, Martin said.

Here’s Progress Texas’ report on the bills that will get a hearing on Wednesday.

Rep. Joe Moody’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 507

  • The most effective civil penalties bill filed
  • Changes possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a civil penalty – similar to jaywalking or not wearing a seat belt
  • Anything over one ounce of marijuana remains a class B misdemeanor

Rep. Harold Dutton’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 414

  • Would change any marijuana possession less than one ounce to a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Gene Wu’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 325

  • Possession of less than .35 ounces of marijuana becomes a Class C Misdemeanor
  • Makes possession a simple ticketable offense you could pay
  • Punishments increase if ticketed multiple times in a year

Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s (Democrat) Bill – HB 1115

  • Rather than potentially being arrested when carrying up to four ounces of marijuana an officer will only give a citation; However, the person charged is still responsible for appearing in court at a later date.
  • Does not reduce the penalty of marijuana possession (Class A or B misdemeanor), which can still result in jail time.

Also up for a hearing is Rep. David Simpson’s full scale legalization bill. As the story notes, the Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy coalition is putting most of its energy into Rep. Moody’s civil penalties bill. Bills to legalize medical marijuana have been referred to a different committee and don’t appear to have as much traction. The bills to be heard Wednesday face opposition from local sheriffs and an uncertain future in the Senate. Still, just having a hearing for them is something. I look forward to seeing how it goes. For further reading on the subject, see this interview with Rice sociologist William Martin.

Not looking good for medical marijuana

From Trail Blazers:

Rep. Marisa Marquez

A key lawmaker suggested Tuesday that a bill legalizing marijuana for medical use is probably “dead,” but the sponsor said she’s not discouraged by the “premature” pushback.

The bill has not yet been referred to a committee, where it could be debated and voted on, but similar proposals have been referred to the House Public Health committee now headed by Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he opposes medical marijuana legalization, and Crownover told The News Tuesday “I think it’s dead in the House, also.”

[…]

The bill’s author Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso, called Crownover’s assessment “premature.”

“I believe that there are a lot of members out there that believe that this is worthy to look at and to discuss,” Márquez said. “I’m not discouraged by any means.”

[…]

There’s a chance the bill could also end up in the House State Affairs committee chaired by Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. Cook said he thought the proposal was “ahead of its time,” but worth a discussion.

“What I traditionally like to do is hear all the different folks come in and testify on a bill because sometimes that reinforces where you are, and sometimes it causes you to change your mind because you are forced to think about things a little more broadly than you would have otherwise,” Cook said.

“We should always have conversation about things,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The bill in question is HB 3785; it and a companion bill in the Senate by Sen. Jose Rodriguez were filed at the deadline. Here’s an Observer story with more details about Rep. Marquez’s bill. It’s not the only medical marijuana bill, and it’s far from the only bill that would in some way loosen or reform marijuana laws, but it does appear to be outside the limits of what will get serious attention. This is going to have to be an actual election issue – a winning election issue, since Wendy Davis supported medical marijuana – before any real progress gets made.

Bill filing deadline has passed

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the legislative session, and we have now passed the point where new bills can be filed.

130114152903-abc-schoolhouse-rock-just-a-bill-story-top

Racing to beat a deadline for filing bills, state lawmakers on Friday submitted hundreds of measures on everything from abolishing the death penalty to the licensing of auctioneers.

By the time the dust settled, 928 bills had been filed in the state House and Senate on Friday, setting the chambers up for a busy second half of the legislative session.

“Now, it’s game on,” longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said.

In all, some 8,000 measures are now before the 84th Legislature, including 4,114 House bills, 1,993 Senate bills and 1,771 resolutions.

[…]

The most high-profile bill filed Friday was an ethics reform package supported by Gov. Greg Abbott that long had been expected to be submitted by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Abbott had declared ethics reform a legislative emergency item during his State of the State address last month.

Taylor’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 19 and also backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require state officials to disclose contracts with governmental entities, prohibit lawmakers from serving as bond counsel for local and state governments and make departing legislators and statewide elected officials wait one legislative session before becoming lobbyists.

“There is no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have with their government,” Taylor said in a statement. “The common-sense ethics reform outlined in Senate Bill 19 will strengthen that bond and send a clear message to the people of Texas that there is no place in government for those who betray the trust given to them by the voters.”

Tax policy also was a common theme, with [Rep. Dennis] Bonnen submitting his hotly anticipated proposal to cut business and sales taxes.

The Senate, which in some ways has been moving faster than the House, already has debated several tax proposals, and the issue is expected to be a priority focus of the session.

The Trib highlights a few bills of interest.

— House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed his long-awaited proposals to cut the rates for both the margins tax paid by businesses and the broader state sales tax. The margins tax bill, House Bill 32, is identical to one filed by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The measures should draw the House more into the tax cut debate this session, which until now has been focused more on the Senate, where Nelson has already held hearings on some high-profile measures.

— Several measures filed Friday aimed at allowing Texas to change its approach to immigration, even as broader proposals stall in Washington.

House Bill 3735 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, seeks to establish a partnership with the federal government to establish a guest-worker program to bring skilled and unskilled labor to Texas.

House Bill 3301 by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would recognize undocumented Texans as “citizens” of the state. It would allow them to apply for driver’s licenses, occupational licenses and state IDs if they meet certain residency criteria and are can verify their identity.

“It also opens the door for future conversations about the very real fact that these Texans without status are here, they are not leaving, and we should be doing everything we can to help them find employment, housing and opportunity,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, Rodriguez’s chief of staff.

— House Bill 3401 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, seeks to establish an interstate compact between interested states for the detection, apprehension and prosecution of undocumented immigrants.

— Looking to add restrictions on abortion, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed House Bill 3765 to beef up the state’s informed consent laws when it comes to minors. Texas law already requires patients seeking an abortion to go through the informed consent process, but Laubenberg’s bill would require notarized consent from a minor and a minor’s parent before an abortion is performed.

— House Bill 3785 from Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, would permit patients with cancer, seizure disorders, PTSD and other conditions to medical marijuana. The measure is broader than other bills filed this session that would only allow low-level THC oils to be used on intractable seizure patients.

— The National Security Agency might have some trouble in Texas if Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, gets his way. House Bill 3916 would make it illegal for any public entities to provide water or electric utility services to NSA data collection centers in the state.

— State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, filed a pair of measures, House Bill 3839 and House Joint Resolution 142, which would ask voters to approve the creation of as many as nine casinos. Under Deshotel’s plan, most of the casinos would be built near the Texas coast, and a large portion of the tax revenue would go toward shoring up the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal Texans.

— In an effort to pave the way for a Medicaid expansion solution that would get the support of conservatives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 3845 to request a block grant from the federal government to reform the program and expand health care coverage for low-income Texans. Though GOP leaders have said they won’t expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, they’ve asked the feds for more flexibility to administer the program. Coleman’s proposal, titled the “The Texas Way,” intends to give the state more wiggle room while still drawing some Republican support.

Here’s a Statesman story about the casino bills. There’s been a distinct lack of noise around gambling expansion this session, which is change from other recent sessions. I suspect Rep. Deshotel’s proposals will go the way of those previous ones, but at least there’s a new angle this time.

Here’s a press release from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) in favor of the medical marijuana bill from Rep. Marquez; there is a not-yet-numbered companion bill to HB3785 in the Senate, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, as well. Two other, more limited, medical marijuana bills, the so-called “Texas Compassionate Use Act”, were filed in February. I don’t know which, if any, will have a chance of passage. I will note that RAMP has been admirably bipartisan in its praise of bills that loosen marijuana laws. Kudos to them for that.

If you’re annoyed at Jodie Laubenberg going after reproductive choice again, it might help a little to know that Rep. Jessica Farrar filed HB 3966 to require some accountability for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers’. Her press release is here.

I am particularly interested in Rep. Coleman’s “Texas Way” Medicaid expansion bill. (A companion bill, SB 1039, was filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez.) I have long considered “block grant” to be dirty words in connection with Medicaid, so to say the least I was a little surprised to receive Rep. Coleman’s press release. I have complete faith in Rep. Coleman, so I’m sure this bill will move things in the direction he’s been pushing all along, but at this point I don’t understand the details well enough to explain what makes this bill different from earlier block grant proposals. I’ve sent an email to his office asking for more information. In the meantime, you can read Sen. Rodriguez’s press release and this Legislative Study Group coverage expansion policy paper for more.

Finally, one more bill worth highlighting:

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.’”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

I agree that this bill isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve been saying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been filed. Good on Rep. Israel for doing what’s right. Equality Texas has more.

Simpson files pot legalization bill

From the inbox:

Rep. David Simpson

Texas State Representative David Simpson (R-7) introduced a bill Monday that would strike all language pertaining to marijuana from Texas Statutes, thus abolishing marijuana prohibition in the state.

Representative Simpson’s HB 2165 harkens back to a time when government did not intervene in the control of marijuana. And you know what? It wasn’t a very scary time. The prohibition of marijuana was notoriously built on misinformation and hyperbole rather than facts and results.

When these laws haven’t worked for 80 years, is it really such a novel concept to simply remove them?

76% of Texans recently responded to a UT/Texas Tribune poll saying they favor reducing criminal penalties for marijuana or allowing medical access to marijuana. How many of them would support the government getting out of marijuana altogether?

It may be a surprise to some that a Republican from deep-red East Texas is reclaiming marijuana prohibition as a small government issue, but it shouldn’t be.

“It disturbs me greatly that Republicans would distort the principles of small government, fiscal responsibility, and personal liberty in such a way that they could support the failed principle of marijuana prohibition any longer,” states Ann Lee, co-founder and executive director of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.

Simpson lays out his Christian-based principles for treating marijuana as any other agricultural product in this TribTalk piece. I wonder how many people (Rep. Simpson included) realize that his “if marijuana is illegal then God made a mistake” rhetoric comes from the late comedian Bill Hicks. This isn’t an argument against HB2165, mind you, I’m just amused. I have no objections to the basic philosophy here, and I think current academic research supports it, but I’d probably want to treat pot more like beer than like, say, corn. It’s still a good idea to keep it away from minors, for example. I’m pretty sure Rep. Simpson would agree with that. Grits, Unfair Park, and Hair Balls have more.

Having said all that, I seriously doubt Rep. Simpson’s bill has enough support to get anywhere. I won’t be surprised if it never gets a committee hearing, or never gets past being left pending in committee. I mean, look at how tentative and constricted the recently introduced medical marijuana bills are, and ask yourself if this is a Legislature that’s ready to throw all the existing prohibitions on marijuana out the window. as Rodger Jones notes, despite more grassroots support for loosening pot laws, nearly all current Republican legislators support the status quo. There’s also likely to be strong opposition to Simpson’s bill – this Chron story quotes a spokesperson from the Sheriff’s Association of Texas vowing to fight against this bill or any other like it. Again, this is not an argument against HB2165, just some perspective. It’s surely better to view it as something to work towards, rather than something that can pass right now. If you see it that way, then some transitional steps are in order, as they’ll do some good now and will make the ultimate leap to decriminalization later that much less daunting. One such recently filed example comes from Rep. Gene Wu. Here’s the press release he sent out recently:

Representative Gene Wu (D-Houston) filed a bill to create a new Class C misdemeanor penalty range for the possession of small amounts of Marijuana. House Bill 325 will make possession of up to 0.35 ounces or 9.9222 grams of Marijuana punishable by a fine of no more than $500.

“Arrests for very small amounts of Marijuana drain law enforcement resources and divert valuable time away from addressing more serious public safety concerns, like Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and Domestic Violence offenses, ” said Wu. “Defendants serving time for low-level Marijuana possession add to jail overcrowding and deplete county coffers without adding to overall community safety. Counties must also provide attorneys to all indigent defendants charged with Class B Marijuana possession; but not for defendants in Class C cases.”

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces or less of Marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor; punishable by up to 6-months in jail, and a fine of up to $2,000. In 2013 alone, Texas law enforcement made over 70,000 arrests for Marijuana possession, accounting for over half of all drug arrests and nearly 8% of all arrests.

HB 325 would lower the penalty ladder for the smallest amounts of Marijuana possession creating a sensible distinction between possession of very small amounts of Marijuana and larger amounts. The bill would also give police officers the option to either arrest or issue a ticket to a person possessing a small amount of Marijuana. Officers would still retain the ability to arrest and search if they choose. Like other Class C offenses, repeat offenses (4 or more) would elevate the charge to a Class B misdemeanor.

“Texas has one of the highest rates in the nation in terms of people arrested for marijuana possession, and some of the harshest penalties,” said Wu. “This bill takes a sensible and cost-effective approach to low-level Marijuana possession, and provides a fiscally responsible solution to an overloaded criminal justice system. I invite my colleagues to support this measure and sign on as co-authors.”

Not nearly as sexy as treating pot like lettuce and carrots, but it is a step in the right direction and it likely has a chance of passage. One can support both HBs 2165 and 325 without contradicting oneself.

The Texas Compassionate Use Act

Looks like this will be the main marijuana-related action in the Legislature this session.

Two Texas lawmakers have filed bills that would allow epilepsy patients to use medicinal oils that contain a therapeutic component found in marijuana.

But some medical marijuana advocates are reluctant to support the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act, calling it “appeasement legislation” that would do little to help Texans with epilepsy — and nothing for those with other diseases that can be treated with medical marijuana, such as cancer. Among those advocates is the family of Alexis Bortell, a 9-year-old Dallas-area girl with epilepsy.

“If these bills passed as they are written now, we will be forced to relocate” to Colorado, said Dean Bortell, whose daughter Alexis has become the face of the medical marijuana issue in Texas. “We are hoping they modify the bills in committee and that we can support them. The last thing we want to do is testify against them. But in their current form, we would have no choice.”

The twin proposals — House Bill 892 from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and Senate Bill 339 from Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler — would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component found in marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. By 2018, the measure would allow the state to regulate and distribute these oils to epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication. It would allow the oils to be ingested, but not smoked.

Texas is one of 16 states where marijuana is illegal for medical and recreational use. In recent years, 11 states have legalized CBD oil for certain medical conditions. Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing broader medical marijuana use.

[…]

“I have been talking to a number of members that feel like this is a way to separate those that want to see the therapeutic benefits of the substance without the potential for abuse,” said Klick, who is a registered nurse. “As is, [these oils] have no street value and no psychoactive effect. If we bump that ratio up, I think we will lose support.”

Klick said there will also be a loss of political support if her bill is expanded to include other ailments, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

[…]

Critics of the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act don’t think it goes far enough. They have concerns about the requirements the bill would put in place for patients, who would have to try two epilepsy medications at maximum dosage before trying CBD oils. In addition, they object to the bill’s requirement that a patient may not try medical marijuana unless no other FDA-approved treatments are available. Finally, critics don’t like how long the implementation of the measure would take, with the first dispensaries scheduled to be licensed by 2018.

“If you look at some other states with CBD-only legislation, you will see that bad laws can be worse than no laws at all,” said Shaun McAlister, the executive director of the Dallas-Forth Worth branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We need immediate access to whole-plant marijuana, not appeasement legislation.”

His colleague Tracy Ansley added: “We don’t consider these medical marijuana bills. These are medical hemp bills.”

I don’t know enough about the medical science to have a sufficiently informed opinion about the merits of these bills. My general sympathies are with decriminalization, so as far as that goes I’d prefer to see something broader. This statement I got from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) a couple of weeks ago when the bills were filed sounds about right to me:

RAMP has the utmost respect for Representative Klick’s and Senator Eltife’s advocacy for patients with epilepsy to have access to safe medical marijuana when no other treatment options provide relief. However, it is clear from experience in other states that CBD-only legislation has failed to generate the high-CBD strains that epileptic patients desperately need. The Texas Compassionate Use Act limits the market to such a degree that people will be unlikely to invest money and time into the extremely difficult practice of medical marijuana cultivation. Colorado, a state with whole plant access, has lead the nation in high-CBD marijuana strains while also helping patients who benefit from THC – such as those with cancer, muscular sclerosis, and PTSD. RAMP advocates a bill that allows the entire plant to be accessed as medicine for qualifying conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and conditions causing seizures, severe pain, severe nausea, and muscle spasms.

If this is truly the best that can be done in the current environment, then I’d say it’s better than nothing and worth supporting, with the hope of building on it later. It would also put some of those predictions about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas into some perspective. We’ll see if this is all there is.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Public safety

Preliminaries
Transportation

When I first started thinking about this series a couple of months ago, this section was all going to be about the budget. We’ve covered this ground before – public safety is about 65% of the total city budget, yet it’s always “off limits” for consideration when there are shortfalls. It’s always the rest of the budget that gets the axe when cuts have to be made. Politically, I doubt anyone thinks they can lose votes by being “for” public safety and against any cuts to it. I’m not advocating cuts, I’m advocating the same level of scrutiny and due diligence for the public safety budget as for the rest of the budget.

Just at an abstract level, it’s impossible to believe that a hundreds-of-millions of dollars budget involving thousands of people, hundreds of departments, and multiple layers of management could not be refined and made more efficient. Here in Houston we have the specific example of thousands of uninvestigated criminal cases, for which as far as I can tell there still hasn’t been a reckoning by HPD. Chief McClelland’s response has been to ask for more money to hire more officers. My response to that is that we need to know a lot more about how the money HPD gets now is being spent. Maybe we do need more cops, and maybe we do need to spend more money on HPD. But that can’t be the default answer. We need to know more about how things are being done now. Only then can we know what we should be doing differently.

Public safety includes the fire department as well, and HFD has its own issues. Twice in the last five years HFD has exceeded its budget due to greater than expected overtime expenditures, caused at least in part by the way vacation time is scheduled. As crime has gone down nationally, so have the number of fires. The vast majority of calls to HFD are EMT calls, not fire calls. As with HPD, it is fair to ask, are we making the best use of our resources, and getting the best value for our tax dollars? I want a Mayor who will not be afraid to ask those questions.

One place where there appears to be general consensus is with body cameras. Everybody wants them, and thanks to a grant from the District Attorney, we have a plan to outfit HPD, Sheriff’s deputies, and constables with them. This is great, but it’s a first step. What will be the rules for their usage? How accessible will the video data be, and who will have access to it? What will HPD’s discipline policy be towards officers who fail to use them properly? Do we have a plan to get cameras for Metro cops? Let’s hear some details.

The discipline policies and practices for HPD in general need a long, hard look. It’s very rare for officers to be punished for excessive force complaints, even in the face of overwhelming (and sometimes video) evidence. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified. The process needs an overhaul, and more public involvement. I want to hear Mayoral candidates address these issues, and not just give me the same paeans and platitudes we’ve gotten in past campaigns.

Note that I haven’t said anything about pensions. I don’t see the need to, since we’re not going to be able to avoid hearing about them from the candidates. The issue is central to the candidacies of at least two of the hopefuls so far. What any of them might promise to do that Mayor Parker hasn’t already tried, especially given the lack of interest by the Legislature in getting involved, is an open question. I’m sure they’ll tell us something.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the city’s criminal justice complex. Everyone also agrees that it will be hella expensive to do something about it. One possible way to reduce the cost might be to rent instead of repairing or rebuilding, but not everyone is happy with that option. Given that this is almost certainly an item that will wind up on the next Mayor’s to do list, it would be nice to know what they think the current Mayor should do about it.

Mayor Parker recently said that “we need a complete rethinking of the nation’s drug laws”. What do the Mayoral candidates think about that? Will they push for HPD to use its authority to write citations for low level drug offenses instead of making arrests?

It seems likely that some form of “sanctuary cities” legislation will be signed into law this session. That will require local police forces to inquire about the immigration status of someone detained or arrested by a police officer or risk losing state funds. Who among the Mayoral candidates will be willing to speak out against this? Will anyone promise to at least investigate the possibility of filing a federal lawsuit to overturn such a law if one is enacted?

Finally, there was a lot of talk in the 2009 Mayor’s race about getting the various law enforcement agencies that operate in and around Houston to work together better. There’s been some progress on this, most notably in the area of radio communications, but overall it’s been a low profile issue. Where do the current crop of candidates see room for improvement on this? To tie this back to an earlier point, one large police force in Houston that isn’t in line to get body cameras yet is the Metro police force. Do the candidates have an opinion about that?

One more of these entries to go. Let me know what you think.

Bill to reduce pot penalties filed

Here we go.

Zonker

A coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans introduced a proposal Monday to make possession of a small amount of marijuana in Texas a civil infraction, instead of a crime.

House Bill 507, filed by state Rep. Joe Moody, would make those caught with an ounce of pot or less subject only to a $100 fine. Currently, some of those people could face up to six months in jail, a fine of up to to $2,000 and a criminal record.

Moody, D-El Paso, said during a news conference at the Capitol that the change would save thousands of mostly-minority Texans from a lifetime record while saving money through reduced jail costs. Similar moves in other states have shown that the policy would not increase marijuana usage, he said.

“A civil penalty is good government, and good government is always good for Texas,” Moody said.

Ann Lee, executive director of the Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, agreed, arguing that reducing penalties for drug violations is in line with the philosophy of conservatives who “stand for freedom.”

Basically, this is one of the things that Grits for Breakfast was proposing to reduce local incarceration costs. The Sheriffs’ Association of Texas will apparently be the main opponent to this, and the general reaction to the bill has been muted, which is about as good as you could hope. It will be very interesting to see who else signs on to this bill or one like it, and if it gets any headway in the chambers. I wouldn’t bet on it passing, but it might get somewhere.

Reducing penalties for pot possession isn’t legalization – I still think that won’t happen this decade, if at all – but it will help keep a lot of people out of jail, and it may help keep them from having their lifetime employment potential wrecked. Still, there is a bigger issue out there, and sooner or later it needs to be acknowledged. Lord knows, there’s plenty of pot being grown around here. Growing it legally here might not only help declutter the jails, it might also help put the drug cartels out of business. At some point, you have to ask what it is we want out of our policies. Grits, BOR, Hair Balls, and Unfair Park have more.

A better way to cut taxes

Grits has a suggestion for the Legislature.

go_to_jail

Reduce local jail costs – which have been a big driver of tax increases in many Texas counties – by reducing penalty categories for low-level marijuana possession (currently a Class B misdemeanor for possession of two ounces or less) and driving with an invalid license (DWLI, currently a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense). Make those two offenses a Class C or even a civil violation and local governments, especially counties, would save money a) by writing tickets instead of jailing people, b) from the fact that attorneys aren’t appointed for the indigent in Class C cases, and c) by keeping more officers, both sheriffs deputies and municipal PDs, out on patrol instead of at the jail arresting pot smokers and drivers who couldn’t pay the Driver Responsibility surcharge.

Texas already started down this road, reducing first offense DWLI from a Class B to a Class C in 2007 after the Driver Responsibility surcharge flooded county courts in the first years after its passage. The same year, the Lege passed and Gov. Perry signed legislation to allow local police departments to write tickets instead of make arrests for DWLI, marijuana possession, and several other petty Class B offenses. Only a few agencies took the Lege up on that optional authority, though, and county jails and court dockets remain stuffed with these low-level, non-violent offenders. So reducing penalties for those two Class Bs is a logical next step, as the House County Affairs discussed during an interim committee hearing on the topic earlier this year.

Unlike the feds, Texas’ budget must balance. Any claim to cut taxes will prove a mare’s nest without a correspondent reduction in spending in a long-term sustainable way. That’s why property-tax relief through the school districts can’t be certain in light of the surely soon-to-be-coming court verdict on school finance. The state has little wiggle room to spend less on healthcare. And pols have promised to spend more, not less, on transportation. After baseline reductions in 2003 and 2011, there’s not a lot of fat left to cut, particularly that would impact property taxes.

By changing state policies to reduce county jail costs, the 84th Legislature could deliver real, not just temporary or superficial, local property-tax relief, cutting costs on a big-ticket item that affects every Texas county. I can’t think of a quicker, more certain way the Lege could reduce upward pressure on local property taxes given the practical constraints imposed by law and politics on the state budget.

See here for the context, and remember that “balancing” the budget is one part rhetoric, one part prestidigitation, and about five parts hot air. As sensible as this is, and as much as it would deliver benefits beyond a reduction in costs to counties, the main obstacle this would face is that it’s not immediate gratification. Lop ten points off the tax rate and you can say “See! I cut your taxes!” Do this and you have to wait and see what all the county commissioners do, and if/when they do cut taxes as a result of the savings, they’ll claim the credit for it themselves. I completely agree with Grits’ idea here, and I think in the abstract a lot of legislators would, too. What I don’t think they would do is see this as “tax relief” in any meaningful way. The people who are talking about that want something they can point to and take all the credit for.

Mayor Parker for pot reform

The list of people who think it’s time to talk about reforming our drug laws keeps growing.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Add Houston Mayor Annise Parker to the growing list of officials calling for a new approach to the nation’s drug laws, especially when it comes to marijuana.

She said as much during an interview this week with community public radio’s Dean Becker, for his Cultural Baggage Radio Show.

“I agree with you that we need a complete rethinking of the nation’s drug laws,” she told Becker, according to a transcript of the show. “We have seen over and over again that outright prohibition doesn’t work. We saw that in the 20’s when the prohibition in this country fueled the rise of organized crime.”

Becker, who broadcasts from KPFT in Houston, has made drug legalization his mission.

An audio clip of the interview is posted on this page.

The story links to this earlier Chron article about Becker’s pro-pot activities. We’ve discussed this before, and it’s worth reiterating that “reform” comes in a variety of flavors here, ranging from issuing citations for drug offenses rather than making arrests (something which has already been authorized by the Legislature but which is not in widespread practice in most Texas jurisdictions) to reducing the classification of offenses for possession of small amounts of pot to a Class C misdemeanor, to various rehab or community service alternatives to legalizing medical marijuana and finally to full-bore Colorado-and-Washington legalization. (As Hair Balls notes, the Marijuana Policy Project has a legislative agenda that includes three options like these.) Because of this, pot reform is not like same sex marriage, where you’re either all in or you’re in the way. There are plenty of places to honorably say “this is as far as I’m willing to go”, at least right now. It’s also hard to know what if anything might be doable in the 2015 Legislature, in part because it’s hard to say right now what the priorities of the leadership will be. That said, one does get a sense of inevitability for change, though the time frame is unknown, and given that one should not want to be the last person hopping aboard the bandwagon. The money people are now sniffing around the possibilities, and you know if anyone has influence with the Legislators, it’s the money people. Be that as it may, I’m glad to see Mayor Parker has arrived on this issue and is looking to be a part of the conversation about where we should be going.

Smoking ban extended to pedestrian plazas

I’m okay with this.

Main Street Square is now a smoke-free zone following the City Council’s decision Wednesday to expand Houston’s smoking ban to pedestrian plazas, marking the latest effort from the Parker administration to curb lighting up in public places.

The changes to the smoking ordinance are twofold: it expands the ban to Houston’s three so-called “public pedestrian plazas” – streets permanently closed to car traffic but open to pedestrians; it also adds “combustible” and “plant materials” to products included in the smoking ban. City Attorney Dave Feldman introduced those changes last month alongside a proposed ban on synthetic marijuana, that will go to the council next week.

Feldman said complaints from business owners at Main Street Square about smoking and litter prompted the move to expand the ordinance.

In researching how to ban smoking at Main Street Square, the legal department realized there were two other areas in the city that qualify as public pedestrian walkways: a small area on Dunlavy north of Allen Parkway near Beth Yeshurun Cemetery and a block-long portion of the Columbia Tap Rail Trail along Walker Street between Dowling and St. Charles.

Previously, the city’s smoking ordinance contemplated only tobacco, outlawing smoking within 25 feet of a public facility, places of employment, bars and restaurants, outdoor sports arenas and stadiums, city libraries and parks.

The prohibition on smoking in parks and outside libraries is a recent development. I see this as an extension of that. There’s an argument to be made, as some Council members did, that this is an infringement on smokers’ freedom. I get that but I don’t buy it. It’s one block – keep walking, and in another 30 seconds you can light up again. As for the synthetic marijuana stuff, see Texpatriate for a primer. This is probably the last tweak to the no-smoking ordinances for the foreseeable future, at least until we know more about the health effects of e-cigarettes.