TEXAS VIEW: Texas is going slow on medical marijuana, recreational use

THE POINT: Here’s why that’s smart.

When it comes to marijuana policy, Texas has gone slow, far too slow for some.

But the pace is just right. Each step toward legalization should be modest and deliberate. Effects should be studied. Tradeoffs need examination. Robust debate on whether to go further should be informed by data and results, not speculation.

On major policy changes, the law of unintended consequences demands respect. Marijuana reform advocates often cite Colorado, where voters approved full legalization in 2012, as a model. Arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana increased, state researchers found. Usage was up dramatically, particularly among young men. But some opponents’ predictions of a surge in violent crime didn’t pan out.

Then, there’s the problems posed by the fact that whatever states do, marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law. That creates dangerous situations for pot dispensers when it comes to banking. And the potency of contemporary marijuana has Colorado putting some limits on the drug even post-legalization.

Careless legislating can causes problems. Oklahoma allows, in theory, only medical usage, but there are few restrictions on getting access to marijuana. The state also has no limits on dispensaries, and as a result, they’ve popped up in greater numbers than in states with full legalization.

The Texas Legislature, operating part-time and working in a fury on complicated issues, is certainly prone to such mistakes. In 2019, lawmakers authorized hemp but didn’t heed warnings that crime labs weren’t equipped to distinguish between it and intoxicating forms of cannabis. As a result, marijuana prosecutors were compromised for months.

Texas has taken small steps so far, allowing medical marijuana only for a specific list of conditions, and then only in a form that’s low in THC, the chemical in the drug that causes a high. The next logical step would be to expand the conditions for which cannabis is authorized. But it shouldn’t be thrown open to any doctor’s wink-and-nod prescription, especially at first.

Decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana makes sense before full-blown legalization. Consensus is building that it makes no sense to clog up jails and courts over small amounts of pot that can be handled with misdemeanor citations.

Tarrant County police departments have recently had discretion to not arrest suspects in small-possession cases. It’s been less than a year, but there’s no evidence the policy leads to more use or other complications. Austin has gone further for longer, not even issuing citations in many cases.

How far to go and how fast remains up for debate. The point is that there are policy experiments underway that should be studied before sweeping changes are made.

Full legalization in Texas is a long way off — as it should be. Before recreational use is allowed, we need to consider society-wide implications. Is easy access to another intoxicant wise in an era when depression and listlessness seem on the rise? How much human potential can we afford to lose to legal drug use?

Marijuana is an issue in which Texas’ slow-grinding government processes can be to our benefit. By taking deliberate steps, measuring consequences and learning the lessons of other states and localities, Texas can chart its course the safest, smartest way.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram