TEXAS VIEW: If kids are getting high from gas-station gummies, Texas needs to act

THE POINT: When drugs are like candy, it’s a problem.

We’ve seen it with fentanyl, brightly colored pills that can be deadly to an unsuspecting user. When the drug is cannabis, that’s not nearly as dire, of course. But a breakdown in Texas law and regulation has made for confusion on a wide array of products, and among the effects are teenagers easily accessing intoxicating products that should be illegal, or at least harder to get.

A Star-Telegram investigation shows the extent of the problem, finding that at least some readily available cannabis products picked up at convenience stores or CBD shops may essentially be marijuana, which is illegal in Texas. Careless legislating and inadequate state oversight are at least partly to blame.

This is not a debate about recreational use of marijuana and whether we should decriminalize or even legalize the drug. We have advocated consistently for slow, careful decriminalization that avoids the mistakes seen in other states and measures consequences before proceeding to legalization. This is about clarity in the law, consumer protection and fixing botched policymaking before the problem gets any worse.

Cannabis policy is a complicated blend of federal and state laws, thanks to the tension between a tough federal ban and states moving at varying speeds toward legalization. It got trickier in recent years, when Congress and states took steps to legalize hemp — cannabis that lacks marijuana’s intoxicating effect, which stems from a chemical called THC.

Texas followed along on hemp in 2019 without much fanfare or thought of regulatory needs. The most immediate effect was confusion for police and district attorneys, who couldn’t make a clear pot bust and prosecution without testing a product’s THC level — testing that Texas labs were nowhere near ready for.

Capitalism, of course, rushed in. In less than four years, stores marketing CBD and related products that can be swallowed, rubbed on or vaped were everywhere. Turns out it’s a short step from oils and other products meant for medicinal use to yummy strawberry gummies delivering a high that, legally, shouldn’t be there.

And it’s an even shorter step from the corner gas station to high schools.

This should be a priority for the attorney general’s consumer protection office. The marketing of these products needs better regulation, and a few fraud prosecutions for manufacturing or selling illegally intoxicating products under the banner of legal cannabis would send a strong message.

Then, the Legislature has to clean up its mess. Definitions of what’s legal, based on the product’s chemical composition, are impenetrable. Even lawyers working in the field disagree on what’s allowed. They even disagree on whether there’s an age limit for purchase of certain products.

If we’re going to set a precise age for tattoos, cigarettes, alcohol and, yes, gender-related medications and procedures, surely we need one for cannabis.

The state must clarify that and give law enforcement more authority and resources to prosecute businesses and shut down repeat offenders who sell illegally. Make sure there’s ample testing capacity so law enforcement can build good cases.

That said, any action must reflect our evolving attitudes on marijuana. It’s important to stop the sale and use of cannabis products in schools. But a dalliance with a vape pen shouldn’t send a teenager careening through the legal system.

Emphasize deterrence and learning about the consequences of drug use; discipline without derailing a child’s education. Districts should reconsider policies that send students to alternative campuses if they test positive for marijuana use.

The extent of Texas’ change of heart on cannabis remains to be seen. Decades ago, few could have imagined a vote in the Legislature to make possession of an ounce of weed or less a Class C misdemeanor — a ticket, essentially, with no possible jail time. The House passed such a bill at the end of April, the third straight session it’s voted for some decriminalization.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will probably stop the bill in the Senate. But the trend is unmistakable. As long as Texas steps slowly and adjusts, avoiding the unintended consequences seen in places such as Colorado and Oklahoma, it will continue.

In the meantime, though, the laws we have should be enforced. And that means taking seriously the presence of illegal products, especially when children can access them.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram