POLITICS

Texas House Votes To Lower Marijuana Possession Penalties

The Lone Star State leads the nation in marijuana arrests. Reformers hope this bill can change that.

AUSTIN, Texas ― The Texas House of Representatives voted to lower criminal penalties for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana Monday, raising optimism among reformers that the measure may make it into law before the end of the biennial session next month.  

House Bill 63, penned by El Paso Rep. Joe Moody (D) could mark a watershed moment for marijuana reform. Texas led the nation in possession arrests with 63,599 in 2016, the last year for which state-by-state data is available from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and remains the largest bastion of pot prohibition in the country.

Sharing the longest stretch of border with Mexico, the U.S.’s main foreign source of pot, and surrounded by states that have legalized medical or recreational use, Texas is home to one of the country’s largest black markets for weed and crisscrossed by traffickers moving marijuana from the fields of California to the states of the Southeast.

“It’s time to stop throwing away taxpayer money and law enforcement resources, and be smarter,” Moody said on the floor of the Texas House.

The Texas Capitol in Austin. 
The Texas Capitol in Austin. 

Moody originally aimed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana altogether by punishing it with civil sanctions alone. But the version that passed the floor by a bipartisan vote of 98-43 instead drops possession of less than one ounce of raw cannabis to a class C misdemeanor.

The offense would carry a fine of up to $500, but the bill would prevent police from arresting or jailing users for that crime alone. Those convicted of small possession would no longer lose their driver’s licenses for six months. The bill would also create a process to automatically defer cases after the fine is paid and court orders are completed, allowing marijuana users to avoid getting slapped with permanent criminal records.

Under current law, possession of two ounces or less of marijuana, the lowest chargeable quantity, is punishable by up to six months in jail, fines up to $2,000 and the temporary revocation of one’s driver’s license.

“We’re certainly disappointed that marijuana possession retains a criminal penalty,” Heather Fazio, director of the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told HuffPost. “However, Rep. Moody has demonstrated tremendous leadership in working with both sides of the aisle to find common ground … and to keep a charge of marijuana from derailing someone’s life.”

It remains to be seen whether the law will make it past the Republican-dominated state Senate.

We’re certainly disappointed that marijuana possession retains a criminal penalty. Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy

Marijuana prohibition has lost favor among Texas Republicans in recent years. The state GOP’s platform, adopted last year, supports reducing possession of cannabis for personal use to a ticketable offense without jail time, like Moody’s bill would do.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a gubernatorial debate last year that he supported dropping possession of small amounts to a Class C misdemeanor.

Public opinion also favors a shift away from marijuana criminalization. Some 69 percent of Texans favored dropping jail sentences for possession of small amounts of weed, including 62 percent of Republicans, according to a poll conducted last year by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune. The same survey found that a majority of Texas voters supported legalizing marijuana, though respondents were divided on whether legalization should be limited to medical use or expand to include recreational use. Only 16 percent wanted to keep pot illegal under any circumstances, leaving current laws with scant support.  

Law enforcement organizations are the only major constituency opposing the rollback of small-time marijuana criminalization, led by police chiefs and sheriffs from suburban and rural jurisdictions. However, even Grand Prairie Police Chief Steve Dye ― a vocal opponent of legalization who leads a subcommittee fielded by the Texas Police Chiefs Association to study marijuana reform proposals ― said last month that he supports decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce.

But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Texas Senate, remains staunchly opposed to weakening laws criminalizing marijuana. Even if the bill were to amass the support it needs to get through the upper chamber, Patrick could use his influence to keep it from coming up for a floor vote.

The state legislature created a medical marijuana program in 2015. But the program is limited to people suffering from intractable epilepsy, and the THC level of products in Texas dispensaries is capped at 0.5 percent. Accessing those products requires a prescription from a physician, which contradicts federal law. Other states with medical cannabis programs only require a doctor’s recommendation to skirt the problem.

A bill that would expand the medical program passed out of committee earlier this month, but has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote. Patrick opposes that legislation, too.

CONVERSATIONS