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Texas Sheriffs Stand Against Marijuana Policy Reform

New bills would expand access to medical marijuana, but the state’s sheriffs’ association promises to fight even such modest legislation.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Thanks in part to Beto O’Rourke’s high-profile run for Senate, Texas enjoys a reputation as a burgeoning progressive state. Yet when it comes to marijuana policy it is far redder than Florida, which just elected a Trump-style governor, Rick DeSantis.

One of the primary obstacles to more progressive marijuana policy is the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, which has consistently opposed efforts to expand medical marijuana, including several pieces of legislation up for consideration this year in the state House and Senate. “We know medical marijuana is not a good idea,” said A.J. Louderback the group’s legislative director, “and we’ll be there, either through testimony or to attack the credibility of these arguments.”

The Sheriffs’ Association of Texas was established in the late 1800s and is mainly composed of rural sheriffs like Louderback, who is the sheriff of Jackson County, about 100 miles south of Houston and home to about 15,000 people. The group is also staunchly conservative: Louderback has appeared on right-wing talk shows to promote President Trump’s proposed southern border wall. In January, he went to the White House to participate in a roundtable discussion about border security with Trump.

While their urban counterparts have begun to adopt more moderate criminal justice policies—the Bexar County sheriff refused to participate in the 287(g) program that allows partnerships with ICE—the Texas Sheriffs’ Association remains committed to an anti-reform agenda, particularly regarding drug policy. In 2014, the group published “Sheriffs’ Association of Texas says NO to Marijuana,” a paper that said marijuana lowers IQ scores, increases criminality, has no medical use when smoked, and is addictive. “We have never allowed it,” the group concluded, “and we never will.”

Louderback said his group has worked to fight the expansion of both medical and recreational marijuana “because we’re still very fearful of the social costs and there’s plenty of factual information that backs this up.” But even state law enforcement groups that have historically opposed decriminalization don’t share the Texas Sheriffs’ Association’s stance on medical marijuana. “Medical marijuana doesn’t bother us a bit,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.

On marijuana, Texas lags behind even Florida 

Advocates in Texas hope that access to medical marijuana can be expanded during the current state legislative session, despite resistance from the sheriffs’ association.  There are several proposed bills that would help: House Bill 122 (which would legalize medical marijuana), House Bill 209/Senate Bill 90 (which would create a medical marijuana program in the state), and House Bill 551 (which would allow some patients to acquire marijuana concentrate). Most recently, Representative Eddie Lucio III filed House Bill 1365, which builds on 2017 legislation to expand medical marijuana access in the state.

Marijuana activists believe that such legislation will help Texas improve on 2015’s Compassionate Use Act, which allows access to cannabis only to patients with intractable epilepsy. Under the act, these terminally ill patients are restricted to a cannabis oil that is high in CBD and low in THC (which causes the “high” associated with marijuana), provided they get approval from two doctors permitted to prescribe the oil. There are just 18 such doctors in Texas, and the oil can be sold to patients only after they try two FDA-approved drugs that prove to be ineffective for them.

Although more than a dozen states have decriminalized marijuana, even the narrow Compassionate Use Act was a challenge to pass. The bill cleared the state legislature, but not without protest. During the House debate last April then-Representative Mark Keough yelled, “This is a bad bill!” over boos from his colleagues.

Texas isn’t just lagging behind blue states on medical marijuana now but also conservative states that have passed much more expansive legislation. In Florida, where the GOP has controlled the governor’s office and legislature for more than 20 years, voters approved Amendment 2, which expanded access to medical marijuana in the state. Enacted in 2016, Amendment 2 allows Florida residents to obtain prescriptions for medical marijuana for conditions far beyond epilepsy, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or any other medical condition that is comparable to these ailments. And when Governor DeSantis took office in January, he vowed to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision finding that Florida’s ban on smokable medical marijuana ran afoul of Amendment 2. The state’s agricultural commissioner also supports smokable medical marijuana and, under pressure from DeSantis and other state leaders, on Feb. 12 the Florida statehouse approved a measure that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana.

But in Texas, “after four years and in a state of over 27 million, less than 600 patients have received cannabis medicine,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “Texas can do better and we will do so this year by making the program more inclusive and less burdensome for patients with debilitating medical conditions.”

Sheriffs oppose new medical marijuana bills

This year, Fazio and other advocates have already encountered resistance to their efforts to expand medical marijuana in the state from Texas sheriffs.  “There are bills to allow the growing of marijuana, decriminalizing possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia,” Brown County Sheriff Vance Hill, also a member of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said on Jan. 12. “The sheriffs’ association is working desperately against those particular bills.”

Like Louderback, Hill is a sheriff representing a rural, conservative county. Brown County has a population of about 38,000. 93 percent of them are white and nearly 90 percent of the county’s presidential votes went to Trump in 2016.

John Pfaff, a law professor and criminal justice expert at Fordham University and the author of “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform,” has noted that influential sheriffs and district attorneys associations—as well as state legislatures themselves—are often dominated by such rural, conservative interests. “Why should rural and suburban voters, who have often supported the very policies that have concentrated disadvantage in the cities,” Pfaff wrote in 2018, “also get a say in how those communities are policed?” Indeed, in 2014, the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association temporarily derailed legislation that would have softened penalties for marijuana possession in the state.

Arresting and prosecuting people for pot nonetheless remains popular statewide in Texas. FBI data show that nearly 12 percent of of the 531,000 marijuana arrests in 2016 were made by Texas police officers. Of those arrests, 98 percent were for possession. That year, Kim Ogg was elected district attorney in Harris County as a reformer who promised to reduce marijuana prosecutions; while she’s reduced such prosecutions, she has also pushed for unaffordable bail in some possession cases.

The maximum punishment for possessing less than two ounces of marijuana in Texas is 180 days in jail. In the fall of 2018, Governor Greg Abbott said he was receptive to lowering that penalty to a fine, an announcement that received significant pushback from sheriffs. “There needs to be some reasonable penalties, because we still view marijuana as an absolute gateway into the drug scene,” Louderback said.

“It’s disappointing to see some law enforcement officers actively working against the vast majority of Texans who want to see marijuana laws reformed,” said Fazio. “Continuing to arrest 60,000-plus annually for simple marijuana possession is irresponsible. It’s time for a change. The people of Texas know it and, increasingly, lawmakers are ready to take action.”