Houston Matters

As Biden announces marijuana pardons, expert says Texas still has a ways to go

In Texas possession of up two ounces of marijuana is considered a Class B misdemeanor and could result in up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Chip Somodevilla

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President Joe Biden announced last week pardons for thousands of federal marijuana possession convictions. He urged governors across the country to do the same, but some feel that may be hard to imagine happening in Texas. Michael Hagerty filled in for Craig Cohen on Houston Matters on Monday, and spoke to Katharine Neill Harris, a fellow in drug policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute. She said that Biden announcement applied to roughly 6,500 people.

“It does not apply to people who have been charged or convicted of marijuana charges at the state level,” she said. “It also does not apply to people at the federal level who have been charged with higher level marijuana offenses like selling or distributing.”

Harris added that currently there isn’t anyone in prison for marijuana possession, and the 6,500 who will be released have been convicted in the past. But she added that it doesn’t completely clear them of their crimes.

“Those 6,500 people could still have that criminal record unless there’s an additional expungement process added to it,” she said. “…So if you’re applying for a job and they did a background check on you it could still come up showing that you’ve had that criminal conviction. So there’s still more work to do here.”

Harris pointed out that this was a promise Biden made on the campaign trail. But this does not change any existing federal law.

“Another kink in this announcement is that the Justice Department said that anyone who is charged at the federal level for possession after October 6, those charges still remain in place,” she said. “So this applies to people who have been convicted in the past, but people at the federal level could still face new convictions for marijuana possession even though it is a rare occurrence.”

She said most federal level charges are for higher, trafficking offenses. In Texas, however, possession of up two ounces of marijuana is considered a Class B misdemeanor and could result in up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. Most Texans support decriminalization, and there have been attempts to reduced those penalties in the state’s last two legislative sessions. Even Gov. Greg Abbott said he does not think that anyone should be incarcerated for simply possessing and using marijuana. But there are medical exceptions, she said.

“Texas has what is called the Compassionate Use Program,” she said. “The caveat of the program is that the cannabis that is allowed to be used can’t contain more than 1 percent of THC, which is the psychoactive component that makes people feel high, but also does have some established medical value, especially when combined with other parts of the plant.”

An Abbott spokesperson said last week the governor would not follow Biden’s lead and issue pardons for marijuana offenses in Texas.

When asked if she thinks there will be a shift in attitudes towards marijuana, Harris said she thinks Texas is taking an “incremental approach” towards it.

“I think what we’ve seen with the Compassionate Use Program since it was originally established is that each year there has been a slight expansion of it,” she said. “So I would expect next legislative session to see some bills that are aimed at modest expansions. Maybe raising the cap on THC a little bit, maybe adding some more conditions that would qualify for that medical use.”

On the criminal justice side, she said she “fully expects to see efforts this session” for the legislative body to reduce penalties for possession, and Abbott’s comments on possession could be encouraging to move them forward.

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