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Before marijuana laws go into effect, hundreds gather for Texas conference

Austin American-Statesman - 9/1/2019

Hemp industry experts and entrepreneurs gathered in downtown Austin on Saturday to find out how to get a foothold in a burgeoning market.

Among the more than 800 new laws that go into effect Sunday are ones that legalize hemp and hemp-derived products, such as CBD oil, and another that expands the state's medical marijuana program to include patients with terminal cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders and some incurable neurological disorders.

The legislative action spurred greater participation in this year's Texas Marijuana Policy Conference, which drew nearly 350 people over the weekend, said Heather Fazio, director for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, which supports the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

"People are looking to Texas to see what are we going to do because it's a huge market that is going to be available," Fazio said. "We would like to see this market be brought into the light of day, where there's accountability, where it's responsible business owners that are providing these services for patients and consumers that want them."

Headlining the event as keynote speaker was Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who described how her office has led Texas in decriminalizing marijuana, not through legislation but by creating a diversion program, which requires offenders caught with small amounts to take a course in personal responsibility, rather than sending them to jail.

She said the idea initially helped her win the DA's post in 2016, and as a policy it has saved taxpayers in Harris County an estimated $28 million a year -- money she said has been used instead on transportation, health care and investigating more serious crimes.

"When I proposed to Houstonians that I thought it was more important to spend that money testing 8,000 rape kits that have been left on the shelves of Harris County for almost a decade, the public agreed," Ogg said to loud applause in a crowded ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Austin. "It's what our people wanted us to do."

Most recently, Harris County has said it will reject all new marijuana cases without testing, which is now required to distinguish illegal marijuana from legal hemp and comes at a high cost. Most other large Texas counties, including Travis County, have followed suit.

The decision flies in the face of a directive by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to keep up business as usual and continue to prosecute marijuana cases. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are still wrestling for clarity on how to do that.

House Bill 1325, which legalized hemp, did not give any money to cities and counties to pay for testing to distinguish hemp from illegal marijuana, so they will have to foot the bill if they have a chance at winning cases in court, Ogg said.

"When it comes to people's constitutional rights and my sacred duty as a prosecutor to see that justice is done, I don't bluff my way through evidence requirements and burdens of proof," Ogg said. "I don't think that's very democratic. I don't think it's American. I don't think it's safe."

Ogg was one of 100 people to speak at the weekend conference, which included 30 panel discussions on topics such as hemp cultivation, using cannabis as medicine and whether Texas should legalize marijuana. The event continues Sunday.

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