HOUSTON — Decriminalizing pot possession, expanding medical marijuana, and regulating hemp production could all be on the horizon for Texas.

Those are among the ideas in nearly 30 marijuana-related bills state lawmakers have filed in the 2019 legislative session.

But how likely are any of them to pass in a politically-changing yet still conservative state, where hopes of getting the green light on marijuana reform at the State Capitol in Austin have burned out session after session?

“Tough, very difficult,” said Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City). “Other states have already done it. We’re not on the front end, but it’s time for us to catch up.”

Rep. Reynolds filed two marijuana reform bills.  One, House Joint Resolution 21, would let voters decide on medical marijuana.  The other, House Bill 209, would expand the state’s existing, limited medical cannabis program to include “debilitating medical conditions” like cancer, autism, chronic pain, and PTSD.

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“I want to help Texans that are suffering with these kind of illnesses to get some relief,” said Rep. Reynolds. “This is a step forward in the right direction.”

Another top priority for advocates: making low-level possession of marijuana a civil penalty instead of criminal.

“You would be obligated to pay this fine, but you don’t get a criminal record,” said Hunter White, Communications Director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. “Essentially, you don’t have a drug convention.”

White said more people in his party back reform. During the 2018 Republican Party of Texas convention, which White attended, delegates approved platform planks endorsing decriminalization, expanded medical access, hemp production, and federal reclassification of the drug.

“This year is just different because there just more general support for these bills now,” White said.

However, even with shifting public and party opinions and new House leadership, White thinks reluctant conservatives in the Senate could still stop reform.

“(Lieutenant Governor) Dan Patrick is the traffic cop in the Senate, and if he doesn’t like the legislation, it won’t go anywhere,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

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Rottinghaus thinks bipartisan support is possible but cautioned if any bill goes too far, too fast, marijuana reform will be a much tougher sell.

“There needs to be a real advocate, someone who’s powerful enough to push this through,” Rottinghaus said. “And, when necessary, kind of pull it across the finish line.”

Rottinghaus said in a session dominated by big issues like school safety, teacher pay, education funding, and property tax reform, cutting through clutter at the Capitol could be the biggest hurdle as the clock keeps ticking in the 140-day session.

So, if the Texas Legislature does pass a marijuana reform bill, will the governor sign it?

A spokesperson told KHOU that Governor Abbott is “open to legislation reducing the punishment for less than two ounces of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor”.

The offices of Lt. Gov Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have not responded to requests for comment on their stances toward marijuana reform.

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