Texas lawmakers took a big step Wednesday toward legalizing hemp production in the state, even as some other high-profile cannabis bills are languishing with less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session.
The state Senate unanimously approved a version of a bill previously passed by the House that would authorize Texas farmers to grow hemp — marijuana’s nonpsychoactive cousin — and allow the crop to be processed into finished goods here. Hemp fiber is used in clothing and industrial parts, and the plant also is a source of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which has boomed in popularity over the past few years because of its perceived health benefits.
Hemp “is going to be a huge new source of income for our farming community, as well as I think tax revenues to the state will go up,” state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said on the Senate floor. He sponsored the measure — House Bill 1325 — in the Senate.
Portions of the bill were revised prior to Wednesday’s vote, beefing up provisions for testing of consumable products containing CBD oil, and also increasing regulations on producers and retailers. The House either will agree to those Senate changes or the measure will go to a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers would attempt to reconcile differences.
To be legally classified as hemp, cannabis plants can contain no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the substance in marijuana that induces a high. For comparison, marijuana for recreational purposes generally contains 9% to 30% or more THC.
A number of senators took pains prior to Wednesday’s vote to stress that legal distinction.
“This is not legalized marijuana,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. HB 1325 “provides for the agriculture production of hemp in the state of Texas consistent with what federal law now allows.”
The new U.S. farm bill signed by President Donald Trump in December made hemp federally legal, but Texas lawmakers still must legalize it here. The plant — which thrives in dry, rocky soils that are common in many parts of Texas — is widely expected to anchor a nearly $3 billion U.S. industry over the next few years now that it has been removed from a list of federally controlled substances.
The progress on HB 1325 could end up being a lone bright spot for cannabis proponents in Texas, who began this year’s legislative session with strong hopes for a number of measures aimed at easing the state’s prohibitions against marijuana and hemp.
House Bill 63 — which would reduce criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot — won House approval more than two weeks ago but has stagnated since then because Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, opposes it and has declared it dead in his chamber.
In addition, a House bill that would expand the state’s restrictive, low-THC medical cannabis law by a limited amount has been advancing in the Senate, while another that would expand it more broadly — and has the backing of many cannabis activists — has stalled.
House Bill 3703, which would make only three ailments newly eligible for the program, has been scheduled for a public hearing by a Senate committee on Friday, but House Bill 1365, which would add more than a dozen, has yet to be assigned to a Senate committee. Both were given green lights by the House last week.
HB 3703 “is unreasonably restrictive,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a pro-cannabis advocacy group. “We hope (the Senate committee) will amend the bill to be more inclusive. Cancer patients, children with autism, and those suffering from severe pain don’t have another two years to wait” for the next legislative session in 2021.
Meanwhile, Morris Denton, who heads one of the companies licensed under the state’s medical cannabis program, previously said the program might not be able to stay afloat if it isn’t expanded significantly. Currently, patients suffering from only a single condition — intractable epilepsy — are eligible to buy medical cannabis under the law.
The current session of the state Legislature ends May 27.
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