Published January 3, 2020 By Marijuana Moment
After Texas legalized hemp and threw marijuana prosecution into chaos last year, prosecutors filed far fewer criminal charges, police departments paid for private testing and public crime labs were struggling to catch up.
It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.
Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.
The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.
“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a widely supported bill to legalize hemp in Texas. The bill focused on agriculture practices and regulations, but it also narrowed the state’s definition of marijuana from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets you high. Anything with less THC is hemp.
Lawmakers were warned the measure could bring marijuana prosecution to a halt without more resources because public labs could only determine whether THC was present in a substance, not how much was present. Still, the legislation sailed into law with no crime lab funding attached. State leaders and the bill authors have since reaffirmed that the law did not in any way decriminalize marijuana.
Soon after its passage, however, district and county prosecutors across the state, in counties that lean both Republican and Democratic, began dropping hundreds of low-level pot cases. Some began requiring law enforcement agencies to submit lab results proving the suspected drugs had more than 0.3% THC before they accepted cases for prosecution. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association advised its members that such testing likely is needed to prove in court that a substance is illegal.
Without public lab testing available, some police agencies turned to private labs — but at a cost. In North Texas, Frisco and Plano police said last month that they continue to pursue all suspected marijuana offenses, submitting cases to private labs for testing. The Collin County district attorney now requires lab results for misdemeanor cases, according to Gail Leyko, the Plano Police Department’s legal adviser. She said all marijuana cases are still being prosecuted, but it costs the city hundreds of dollars more per test to go through private labs that can determine THC concentration.
The Plano City Council approved more funds this summer for the department to test substances in misdemeanor marijuana cases, she said. Other counties without resources for more expensive testing are sending cases to DPS to await its new testing method, rejecting or holding misdemeanor marijuana cases for now, Edmonds said. Private testing can get even more expensive if lab employees also need to testify in court, he said.
“It can be hard to justify that for a misdemeanor,” he said.
Counties like El Paso have argued there still remains enough circumstantial evidence to prove something is marijuana without submitting cases for lab testing. The difference in interpretations has led to varying levels of change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but one obvious result has been a sharp statewide decline in low-level pot prosecution.