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Texas GOP Senate leader looks to block bipartisan pot bill

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A historic push in Texas to reduce penalties for small amounts of marijuana was declared dead Tuesday by the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, who called it a “step toward legalization” that he would not allow.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s opposition underscored the resistance by state GOP leaders to relaxing virtually any marijuana laws, even as the drug becomes increasingly legal elsewhere in the U.S.

Patrick, the Senate leader, made it clear a bill wouldn’t advance after a vote Monday in the GOP-controlled House to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor — eliminating arrests, but still making possession a crime.

“I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana,” Patrick tweeted .

Democrats bristled at the characterization but were left facing long odds that Texas would soften its tough stance with only a month left to get a bill on the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The legislation that passed the House had already been weakened and removed efforts to totally decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, which Abbott had not publicly endorsed.

The continued opposition by Republicans comes despite the Texas GOP changing its party platform last year to support the removal of criminal penalties for low-level marijuana offenses.

“We have a disconnect with the lieutenant governor and the governor on this issue. It’s frustrating for us and I don’t know why that is,” said Jeff LeBlanc, who served on the Texas GOP committee that drafted the new platform.

The House gave final passage to the measure on a 103-42 vote, drawing support from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Rep. Joe Moody, who sponsored the bill, said the measure does not take even a step toward legalization of marijuana and criticized Patrick for taking to Twitter instead of talking to House lawmakers.

Moody had acknowledged that political realities in the Texas Capitol forced him to weaken his measure ahead of the House vote and remove the decimalizations component. But still, Patrick balked.

“This bill is backed by an overwhelming majority of those in this body and an overwhelming majority of the folks back home that you represent,” Moody said. “Mr. Patrick is the odd man out here and the ball is in his court.”

Currently, at least four states have designated possession of small amounts of marijuana as a low-level misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Texas remains a tough landscape for marijuana advocates as pot laws are loosened nationwide. Shortly after becoming governor in 2015, Abbott signed a bill making Texas the last big state to allow some form of medical marijuana, albeit in an oil extract with minute levels of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana that causes a high.

Abbott made clear at the time that he “will not allow” legalized marijuana in Texas on his watch. His office did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

The new law would mandate a fine of up to $500 and would look to streamline protocol to expunge the charges from offenders’ records.

Under current Texas law, those with small amounts of marijuana are subject to a Class B misdemeanor, which could mean a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days of jail time.

Heather Fazio, the director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said there is a lot of misunderstanding about what the bill does and noted there is an appetite for this conversation in the Senate.

“This bill has already changed significantly — perhaps some of the opposition has to do with maybe not knowing exactly how the bill has been changed,” Fazio said.

Burkett Shaw
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