New hemp laws are putting Texas law enforcement in a bind

For decades, it didn't matter what part of the cannabis plant was being used. It was all considered illegal under federal law.

Now, changing social norms are being gradually reflected in laws that decriminalize numerous cannabis products -- including hemp. When the United States Farm Bill was passed in late 2018, hemp products -- among them, cannabidiol (CBD) oil -- became legal.

For law enforcement officials in Texas, that's now a serious problem that they aren't sure how to manage.

Here's the issue: Hemp and marijuana both come from cannabis plants and are largely distinguished on a chemical level by the amount of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their products. Under the new federal regulations, any product that has less than 0.3% THC is hemp. If there's more, it's still considered marijuana.

The problem is that the majority of labs in Texas don't have the sophistication necessary to tell the exact quantity of THC in either a raw plant or a product like CBD oil. Most labs that are used to provide chemical tests that are later part of criminal proceedings in drug cases can only give a positive or negative answer regarding the mere presence of THC in a plant or product. Now, that's no longer enough to gain a conviction.

"This caught a lot of us by surprise," said one analyst in the Houston Crime Lab, which suspended testing on marijuana cases on June 10. Given the expense of the equipment involved, necessary modifications to the labs and the training that will have to be done, there's no telling when Texas will be able to start supplying the evidence needed to allow criminal cases involving marijuana to move forward.

While this might sound like good news if you deal in any kind of cannabis product, it's not. Official advisories are suggesting that officers can "get creative" and seek new avenues to prosecute marijuana crimes. When law enforcement decides to get creative, liberties can be taken and innocent people can suffer.

If you've been accused of a marijuana crime, don't assume that the softening social attitudes toward the use of the drug will help in Texas. Prosecutors remain as committed as ever before to putting people behind bars for marijuana.

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