AUSTIN, Texas — State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, is well aware of the uphill battle he will face on his marijuana legalization bill he has filed, when the Texas legislature reconvenes.
Last session, Moody authored House Bill 63, which would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. That bill passed with a supermajority in the Texas House of Representatives, but was never taken up in the Senate, failing to even be assigned a committee - the step needed before even being brought to the floor for discussion.
This session, the prosecutor-turned-lawmaker is going further by filing a bill that would outright legalize marijuana if passed.
"In the past, I worked heavily on decriminalization. I think that’s an effort that’s still worthy of robust debate, and last session we voted it out of the House with a supermajority of the votes, so there’s a lot of momentum behind that policy," Moody said. "Quite honestly, the public opinion on having a retail market for cannabis in Texas is moving in favor of. This is the right time, particularly with the economic downturn we’re in due to the pandemic. This is the right time to advance this conversation."
Moody filed House Bill 447, which would make recreational marijuana legal for adults at least 21-years-old. If passed, this would outlaw driving while under the influence of marijuana, while also creating a taxable market.
Under this bill, the state would tax cannabis products 10 percent, with the revenue going towards cities, counties, and the Teacher Retirement System.
"We can learn from the mistakes from other states, and we should. This is no longer an experiment. There’s a significant amount of data out there we can rely upon," Moody said. "If you overly tax or overly regulate the market, then you probably haven’t done anything to eliminate the black market, or you probably create a grey market. That’s important, just to make it effective and efficient."
Through the years, Texans have increasingly supported legalization of marijuana, beyond simply decriminalization.
Despite this growing support, Joshua Blank - the research director for The Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin - said there are so many factors working against passing Moody's bill or any other meaningful marijuana policy reform.
In addition to having to compete with higher priority issues like COVID-19 response and redistricting, Blank said the political battlefield may end up ultimately holding up any meaningful marijuana legislation, despite growing public support.
"I think in general, the big obstacle to this - like most things - is political. Even though the share of Texans who support decriminalizing or outright legalizing marijuana continues to grow to the point where there’s a majority of Texans who would support some form of legalized marijuana, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes, the reality is for socially conservative members in the legislature, and especially at a time where they’ve ran so heavily on support for police, support for law enforcement, support for enforcing laws, it’s a little bit off message at this point to say, ‘Let’s decriminalize a drug law,’" Blank said.
Supporters of such laws have pointed to the tax revenue generated in states that have legalized marijuana.
Recently, both California and Colorado announced they have passed the $1 billion point in revenue since beginning their tax programs.
Meanwhile, Texas faces a nearly-$4.6 billion shortfall in 2021.
"I envision a cannabis market to mirror what we’ve done with the lottery. Not to say this is a silver bullet to budget issues, but it can be integrated into our budget as a reliable source of revenue for good programs," Moody said.
Blank said lawmakers and advocates will still have to compete with how massive the state's budget is, which may make it harder to convince even fiscally conservative lawmakers.
"I think at this point we don’t know for sure what the total tax revenue to a legalized marijuana system would look like in the State of Texas, but people proposed it could be as much as $1 billion per biennium, so every two years. But, the reality is the Texas budget is over $200 billion every biennium, so even facing budget shortfalls like we are, this is really just a drop in the bucket," Blank said.
Moody, however, said he's up for the challenge of getting the bipartisan support to get this bill through both chambers of the Texas Capitol.
Even though his decriminalization bill last session didn't make it through the Senate, its passage through the House was the closest Texas has ever gotten to pass a law like this.
"I’m not naive to think this is a bill that will be fast tracked to the governor’s desk. Having worked on the cannabis legislating arena for six years now, I know the hurdles, I know where they are, and I also know how to build a consensus. I look forward to that conversation," Moody said. "When I came to the legislature, I was a former prosecutor who had literally put people behind bars for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Now, I’m a legislator carrying a retail marijuana bill. Hearts and minds can change. Discussions can change. Do I think we’ve advanced conversations to the point where we can advance a bill to the governor’s desk on decriminalization? Yes I do. Do I think it will be easy? No, big change is never easy. That struggle for many years has been a part of a robust discussion in the state of Texas. You can see the advancement session after session. The steps may feel small at times, but we continue to make steps forward."