David Simpson

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Last week, the State House's Criminal Jurisprudence Committee voted 5-2 to fully legalize recreational marijuana for adults. Yeah, you read that right. In doing so, they became the first subset of a legislative body in the United States to back the legalization of pot. Four other states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug, but all have done so by direct referendum and not through the legislature.

No such exercise in direct democracy exists in Texas; the legislature has a hand in all statutes and constitutional revisions, meaning they are the ones who must get involved if Texans ever want to see pot legalized. And while this particular bill, HB 2165 by state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, faces nearly impossible odds to final passage, its limited success in the legislative process should serve as a positive harbinger of the issue's near future.

Simpson, a conservative Republican from behind the Pine Curtain, is no token moderate holdover in his party. He once attempted to overthrow House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, largely seen as too moderate by the rightward periphery of the chamber, by briefly running against him. This is a man who once filed legislation to prosecute TSA Agents for engaging in pat-downs at the airport.

But on pot, for whatever reason, he takes a libertarian point of view.

"Everything that God made is good, even marijuana," Simpson said in March, when he unveiled his bill, which simply eliminates any penalties and references to marijuana in the penal code. "The conservative thought is that government doesn't need to fix something that God made good."

Simpson's reasoning might be, well, unorthodox, but his end-goal is shared by more and more Texans. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling alleged that 58 percent of Texans back the full legalization of marijuana. Simpson's bill, combined with the support of Democrats and a moderate Republican (Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi), garnered more than two-to-one approval within the panel.

The Legislature is also considering other, sometimes duplicative, proposals regarding marijuana laws. HB 507, sponsored by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would decriminalize possession of marijuana. It was also recently passed by the committee in question.

Simpson and Moody's respective bills, however, stand little chance of actually becoming law. The whole house will likely not vote on the measures, nor will they come up in the senate and Gov. Greg Abbott would almost certainly veto both measures should they come across his desk.

"I don't think decriminalizing marijuana is going to happen this session," Abbott said to reporters last month. "I will see Texas continuing to lead the way of diverting away from activity that involves drug use and helping people lead more productive lives."

Still, some progress could likely be made. SB 339, by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, would provide for some forms of medical marijuana. It has already passed the senate by huge bipartisan margins and is well on its way to passing the house. It's unclear if Abbott will veto it.

If and when Texas does end its asinine modern-day prohibition, it will be because of a bipartisan coalition of strange bedfellows. Democrats, moderate Republicans and ultra-conservative Tea Party representatives with certain libertarian tendencies will have to come together to do what is right. It's in the state's best interest to stop prosecuting people for smoking a plant with no proven harmful effects, wasting millions upon millions of dollars in the process. Thankfully, we now have Simpson, an unlikely champion, leading the cause.

Horwitz is a government senior from Houston. Follow Horwitz on Twitter @NmHorwitz.

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Legalized marijuana may be coming to Texas after a recent House committee vote.

In what is being hailed as a victory by its supporters, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on May 7 approved legislation that would legalize the possession, sale and recreational usage of marijuana in Texas.

HB 2165, sponsored by Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), is described as legislation “relating to repealing marihuana (sic) offenses.” According to CBS Houston, the bill seeks to have those convicted on a first-time “state jail felony” to instead be placed under “community supervision,” along with creating probationary protections for students and minors.

Simpson, who is a member of the Tea Party, wrote in an op-ed last month that his belief in God and his distrust in government led him to sponsor the bill.

“I don’t believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that government needs to fix,” Simpson wrote. “The time has come for a thoughtful discussion of the prudence of the prohibition approach to drug abuse, the impact of prohibition enforcement on constitutionally protected liberties and the responsibilities that individuals must take for their own actions.”

Stephanie Hamborsky, leader of the University’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, said although the organization supports the bill’s passing, it does not agree with the way Simpson presented the issue.

“We feel it passed [the committee] because it was a conservative that pushed it and he’s very religious,” said Hamborsky, a Plan II and biology junior. “We wish it had been passed through with other reasoning, but we’re glad it’s been proposed nonetheless.”

Two Republicans joined the panel’s three Democrats in approving the bill, which passed the committee by a 5–2 margin. The committee’s ruling comes four days after the same panel voted in favor of another bill calling for the decriminalization of marijuana, another unprecedented decision in state Legislature.

The bill passed committee only after altering language to ensure marijuana consumption by minors remains illegal in the state unless under direct parental supervision. 

Government junior Carlo Antoniolli said he thinks the bill will not last much longer in the Legislature.

“I think it had potential to make it through committee, but there is no way will it be voted for on the floor,” Antoniolli said.

Antoniolli also voiced concern with the way Simpson framed legalization in his bill.

“I’m a big advocate for separation of church and state,” Antoniolli said. “I don’t think [religious affiliation] is a very justifiable way to consider something.”

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) filed a bill Monday to legalize marijuana in Texas.

If passed, HB 2165 would repeal offenses related to possessing, selling and growing marijuana in Texas. The bill retracts all mentions of the word “marihuana” mentioned in the current provisions of the law.

In a statement, Simpson said, “God did not make a mistake when he made marijuana.” According to Simpson, the government should not have a role in marijuana regulation.

“Let’s allow the plant to be utilized for good — helping people with seizures, treating warriors with [post-traumatic stress disorder], producing fiber and other products — or simply for beauty and enjoyment,” Simpson said in the statement. “Government prohibition should be for violent actions that harm your neighbor — not of the possession, cultivation, and responsible use of plants.”

Simpson said marijuana should be regulated like any other plant.

 “I am proposing that this plant be regulated like tomatoes, jalapeños or coffee.” Simpson said. “Current marijuana policies are not based on science or sound evidence, but rather  misinformation and fear.”

Currently, marijuana is legal for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia. 

Stephanie Hamborsky, Plan II and biology junior and president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said she is in favor of the bill. Hamborsky said she believes selling marijuana in the state would aid Texas’ economy. Colorado made $34.4 million in revenue from recreational marijuana sales between January–October 2014, according to The Washington Post.

 “I think overall this bill is a good thing. I think lawmakers are realizing … it is a huge economic incentive,” Hamborsky said. “They can tax it and regulate it, and the money goes to the state.”

 The legalization of marijuana would also help students charged with the use or possession of marijuana, according to Hamborsky.

 “As a student at UT, you’re working hard, and you want to graduate and get a job,” Hamborsky said. “If you have a blemish like that on your record, that doesn’t reflect your competence as an employee or professionalism. It can be a barrier for students.”

 There were 12 offenses related to the possession of drug paraphernalia last year on campus — 11 of which were cleared, according to University of Texas Police Department crime statistics.

 When asked whether UTPD supports the legalization of marijuana, UTPD spokeswoman Ronda Weldon said UTPD would uphold the new law if the bill were to pass.

 “The UTPD enforces whatever law is on the book,” Weldon said.

 Bridget Guien, communications director for College Republicans and economics freshman, said the organization is divided on the legalization of marijuana.

 “We currently do not have a stance on the legalization of marijuana,” Guien said in an email. “The members of our organization hold a variety of different opinions on this subject so I am unable to give a general opinion.”

University Democrats support medical and recreational use, production and sale of marijuana in Texas, according to Ashley Alcantara, UDems communications director and international relations and global studies senior. However, Alcantara said she thinks marijuana should be regulated in a similar fashion as alcohol. 

“University Democrats supports the regulation and decriminalization of marijuana, which aligns with the platform of the Texas Democratic Party.” Alcantara said in an email. “Both policies would create more reasonable law enforcement practices and reduce the incarcerated population, which are both very pressing issues.”

Representative files bill to allow legal marijuana in Texas

To read our full story on the issue, click here.

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) filed a bill Monday to legalize marijuana in Texas.

If passed, the bill would repeal offenses related to possessing, selling and growing marijuana in Texas.  The bill retracts all mentions of the word “marihuana” mentioned in the current provisions of the law.

In a statement, Simpson said, “God did not make a mistake when he made marijuana.” According to Simpson, the government should not have a role in marijuana regulation.

“Let’s allow the plant to be utilized for good—helping people with seizures, treating warriors with PTSD, producing fiber and other products—or simply for beauty and enjoyment,” Simpson said in the statement. “Government prohibition should be for violent actions that harm your neighbor—not of the possession, cultivation, and responsible use of plants.”

He said marijuana should be regulated like any other plant.

“I am proposing that this plant be regulated like tomatoes, jalapeños or coffee.” Simpson said. “Current marijuana policies are not based on science or sound evidence, but rather misinformation and fear.

Currently marijuana is legal for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, as well as in Washington, D.C. 

Nearly two weeks before the April 17 explosion in West killed 15 people, including 12 volunteer first responders, Texas lawmakers voted against providing additional funds to the state’s 1,505 volunteer fire departments.

The Texas House of Representatives voted April 4 to table three amendments to the Senate’s proposed budget that could have allocated about of $6.5 million to the Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program. The program provides funding to volunteer departments — such as the West Fire Department — for firefighter training, protective clothing and rescue equipment.

Under current budget proposals, the program would receive $36 million to $37 million in the next two years, less than the $60 million the Texas Legislature allocated for the 2010-11 biennium, but more than the $27 million allocated for the 2012-13 biennium.

It also falls shy of the $150 million in backlogged requests — some of which date back to 2004 — from volunteer fire departments across the state.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, authored the amendments to the current budget bill. He said he believes some lawmakers voted against the amendments to use funds from the program’s account for other purposes.

“Doing this by accident or neglect is bad enough, but to do it knowingly is egregious,” Simpson said.

Two of Simpson’s amendments would have provided about $6.5 million during the next two years from the state’s Volunteer Fire Department Assistance account, which contains revenue set aside for the program. Another would have allocated $1.2 million to the program from the account.

The account will have $80.9 million by the end of the state’s fiscal year, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts’ biennial revenue estimate published in January.

“We’re just trying to use money that’s already been collected,” Simpson said.

The budget bill was approved by the House, but differences between the House and Senate versions must now be ironed out in a conference committee composed of senators and representatives.

Simpson said he has spoken to state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who serves on the conference committee, to encourage him to consider adding additional funds to the program.

While lawmakers debate the increase, the Texas A&M Forest Service, which administers the program, has had to readjust its priorities in the face of decreased funding.

Jason Keiningham, Texas A&M Forest Service program coordinator, said the service has focused on providing training and protective clothing to departments since the Legislature decreased funding in 2011, limiting what the service could provide.

“[Firefighters] just want the basic tools,” Keiningham said. “All they want to do is protect life and property.”

Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, said many rural areas do not have the tax base to pay their fire departments like some larger communities.

Barron said of the state’s fire departments, 1,505 are composed strictly of volunteers, 140 employ their firefighters and 290 combine career firefighters and volunteers into their force.

“That’s why state funding is greatly needed and important,” Barron said. “A lot of people don’t know there are a lot of poor departments out there.”

On the Lege

Higher education campuses in Texas have been designated gun-free zones for 15 years, but lawmakers will try again to change that this legislative session. Since the start of the 82nd Texas Legislature last month, Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, have each filed bills to allow carrying licensed concealed handguns on campus. UT Division of Housing and Food Services follows institutional rules that ban all weapons and facsimiles on all areas of campus, subject to a third-degree felony. “If the legislation was to pass, DHFS would consult and work with legal counsel and University Administrators to make any changes to our current policy,” said Associate Director for Residence Life Hemlata Jhaveri, in a statement. University Operations spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said the UT Police Department will not begin any campus planning until there is a final outcome on the bill. “If this legislation passed, it would make things a little more complicated,” Weldon said. “It’s always easier to regulate something that is not a law versus something that is. It’s easier for officers to monitor if someone is breaking the law than having to check who has a license to carry on campus and who doesn’t.” Driver also filed a campus concealed carry bill during the 81st Legislative Session, in 2009, with 75 co-sponsors. The bill passed in the Senate but died in the House, he said. If the bill passes, Wentworth said only licensed holders older than 21 years old who have completed a required class and passed a background check would be granted the additional rights. Wentworth, who co-sponsored the bill last session, said he was motivated to file a similar bill this session because of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when English senior Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on campus before he died by suicide. “[The bill] is designed to give faculty, staff and students a way to defend themselves when some deranged person comes on campus intending to commit suicide and take as many people with him as he can like they did at Virginia Tech several years ago,” Wentworth said. “A [gun-free zone] means it’s a victim zone, an area where law abiding people who will obey the law and not carry weapons will be the vulnerable, defenseless targets — sitting-ducks of people who come on campus in order to do harm.” John Woods, executive director of Students for Gun-Free Schools, experienced the Virginia Tech shooting as an undergraduate student. He said resources, such as the Behavior and Concerns Advice Line, are key in preventing campus incidents. “Let’s focus on prevention and what we can do to keep the guns out of the hands of people intending to do harm,” said Woods, a biology graduate student. “In the case of Virginia Tech, he had been ruled a danger to himself and others. Under federal law, he should not have been able to buy a gun. This idea that you can carry guns to stop a school shooting doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Woods said the bill would allow unrestricted campus carry to all facilities, unless there are amendments added to the bill. He said student communication with lawmakers is key in preventing the bill. “The way this bill is written, the University has no power [to regulate its implementation],” he said. “It’s not just that it allows concealed carry, it ties the University’s hands establishing reasonable regulations.” One amendment supported by both Woods and Students for Concealed Carry on Campus would allow campuses to regulate dorm policy. “Designated, secure storage areas for [concealed handgun license] holders living in dorms would be something we would not oppose, and the text of the bill gives power to universities to determine policy with firearms and dorm residents,” said the organization’s president Jeff Shi. The group will hold educational events throughout the semester, including a on-campus concealed handgun license class and a public shooting range day.

Concealed carry of handguns on college campuses has been a divisive issue in the Texas Legislature since 2007, and elected officials will go another round on the issue once the new session starts in January.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, filed a bill on Monday that would allow those who possess a concealed handgun license to carry a handgun on university campuses. To obtain a concealed handgun license, applicants must be of sound mind, have no criminal record, be at least 21 years of age and take a course on proper concealed carry procedure.

“We shouldn’t ask students to choose between being educated and being able to protect themselves,” Simpson said. “It excites me and gives me much hope as I meet with young people who are concerned about their government and want to get involved. If we can make the bill better, let’s make it better.”

Simpson said he would seek extensive input from students who both support and oppose the legislation as he continues to revise it. He said he wants to add an amendment to allow private colleges and universities to set their own policies on concealed carry.

He said he attended a Students for Liberty conference at UT this weekend and spoke with several students in College Republicans, national libertarian group Students for Liberty and other groups who expressed support for concealed carry, but he is interested to hear from students with opposing views. He is also seeking input on his Facebook page.

Jeff Shi, president of the UT chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, said he is glad the issue will find its way into the legislative conversation, but his organization will not decide whether to endorse the bill until the session actually begins. He said he did not think the 48-seat Republican majority in the new state House would necessarily impact the outcome of such a bill.

“There is going to be a misconception that the fight to get concealed carry passed will be a partisan one, which it is not,” Shi said. “Students for Concealed Carry is a nonpartisan organization, and our make-up comes from both Democrats and Republicans who support the bill.”

However, John Woods, executive director of UT Students for Gun-Free Schools and a graduate representative in Student Government, said the election results were worrying because several anti-concealed carry representatives lost their seats. He encouraged students from both sides of the conversation to call their state representatives about the issue.

Woods said the topic of campus suicides should be featured more prominently in discussions about the legislation, noting that guns are the most common weapon in suicide attempts and that suicide is the second-highest killer of college students.

“We have had zero homicides [on campus] in the last three years and only three in 30 years, but we have three to four suicides every year,” Woods said. “By adding additional means, we could be putting more students at risk of suicide.”

In October, SG passed a resolution affirming their support for the continued ban of concealed weapons on college campuses. The resolution gives representatives and executive board members the authority to lobby against concealed carry in the state legislature.