Marijuana decriminalization passes Texas House committee
Not going to jail for an ounce or less of marijuana in Texas is one step closer to reality today after a Texas House committee voted in favor of such a measure.
HB 81, filed by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil fine of $250, with no arrest, jail time, or criminal record. This would be a sharp departure from the current law, which provides for a $2,000 fine, up to 180 days in jail, and six months driver’s license suspension, even if the offense did not involve a vehicle.
Alternatively, those found indigent would not have to pay the full fine, while others may opt for a drug education class or 10 hours of community service instead of paying the fine.
Fiscal analysis of the bill estimates that while it will cost courts $1,553,558 each fiscal year due to no longer collecting fees, there would be a net gain of $2,195,245 each fiscal year in general revenue for the state.
Passed by a 4-2 bi-partisan vote in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, the bill now heads to the Calendars Committee where members will vote on whether or not to schedule the legislation to be heard by the full Texas House of Representatives. Should the House vote to pass the bill, it would then go to the Senate for approval, then back to the House, then to the desk of Governor Greg Abbott for him to either sign, veto, or let sit until it automatically becomes law.
A similar bill was passed during the 2015 legislative session, however due to the lateness of the vote, Calendars never scheduled the bill.
Rep. Todd Hunter, who chairs the committee, is likely to have the bill scheduled in a timely manner. He voted in favor of passing the bill out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
Nearly a third of the legislators in the House have signed on in support of the bill, mostly democrats.
During the committee hearing for HB 81, numerous people testified in support, while only one person, Ector County District Attorney Robert Bland, testified against the bill. His primary concerns included officers not being able to accurate determine whether or not to arrest someone for being over the one ounce threshold, and that they would no longer have probable cause to search for larger amounts, referencing court rulings in other states. Under the bill as proposed, officers can search someone if they smell marijuana, and any that is found would be destroyed.
Representatives of the League of Women Voters, Texas Young Republicans, and Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition testified in support of HB 81.
Others also registered either for or against the bill, but did not testify. Those registering against consisted primarily of law enforcement officials.
Jax Finkel, Executive Director of Texas NORML was happy with how the hearing went. She stated, “When you take a look at the witness roll for HB 81’s hearing, you can see an outstanding list of 90 people from all parts of the political spectrum, policy professionals, lawyers, former law enforcement and judges, non-profits and justice organizations. These people represent a vast majority of Texans who firmly believe is it time to stop the bleeding and enact common sense policy.”
She added, “Those that spoke against were a very small minority with only seven people there representing Cherokee County DA, the Ector County DA, four people representing the Sheriffs Association, and the Texas Municipal Police Association. I think it goes without saying that these few are the last vestiges of prohibition, clinging tightly to their reefer madness and poor policy. They are the few that still profit from keeping people flowing into the system.”
Pointing towards one of multiple polls which show Texans in support of both decriminalizing marijuana, and legalizing it, Finkel stated “If you look at the Texas Lyceum poll, we find that these hearings support those numbers and more.”
Heather Fazio with Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy say’s these people who registered against don’t have much to stand on. “It’s very difficult to intelligently defend the status quo when it comes to marijuana policies in Texas. This is probably one of the primary factors in the lack of opposition to HB 81 at the bill’s hearing on March 13. Texans want to see their tax dollars utilized more efficiently; arresting 60,000-70,000 people annually for simple possession of marijuana is a drain on valuable resources that should be used to defend against violent and property crime.”
Both Finkel and Fazio have been at the state capitol in Austin on a near daily basis, in constant contact with legislators about the progress of various bills. In all, 20 cannabis related bills have been filed.
They ask that at this point people focus on talking to their direct representative about encouraging Calendars members to schedule HB 81, as this will be the most effective method for getting the bill traction. If your representative is on the Calendars committee, then you are encouraged to contact them.
They added that contacting members of the Calendars committee at this time could be counter-productive and cause support for the bill to slip, as the committee’s focus is currently on budget-related bills.
Recent polling by Texas Tribune and the University of Texas show that a record low 17 percent of Texans oppose any change to the state’s marijuana laws.
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