Texas House to hear marijuana penalty reduction bill
Legislators in the Texas House of Representatives will hear a bill to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a $250 civil fine on Thursday.
House Bill 81, introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and co-authored by Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs), would have police cite a person in possession and confiscate any cannabis. There would be no arrest. That person would then either have to pay a $250 fine or perform community service, but will not have a criminal record. Those cited a second and third time will have to take drug education classes, and any citation after that could result in a Class C Misdemeanor charge.
Under current Texas law, those found in possession of two ounces or less of marijuana can face up to 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, and six months of drivers license suspension. Concentrated marijuana is a felony in any amount and will not be covered under HB 81.
The bill was scheduled with less than a day to go before the deadline, squeezing in just near the last moment.
This comes on the heels of efforts to promote the bill with both radio and TV ads.
Only one person testified against the bill during its hearing in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Ector County District Attorney Robert Bland. He voiced concern that making possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil penalty would impact the ability of officers to investigate larger amounts of marijuana. He also spoke of it potentially ruining the career of law enforcement officials should they improperly charge someone in the field.
Provisions were added to the bill to ensure that officers would be able to conduct a full investigation should they find marijuana.
Numerous others stepped up to testify in support of the bill, including representatives with the League of Women Voters, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, Texas Young Republicans, the ACLU of Texas, and Texans for Accountable Government. Others in attendance included lawyers, scholars, researchers, political analysts, and veterans.
At the end of the hearing, Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) made it a point to note that there was very little opposition to the bill.
The bill passed out of committee on April 4 and was added to the Texas House Calendar right before the deadline to schedule legislation. It will be heard on Thursday, May 11.
Law enforcement organizations have been the primary opposition to the bill, as representatives from both the Texas Sheriff’s Association and Texas Municipal Police Association registered against the bill.
In 2014 the Texas Sheriff’s Association released a statement in response to a similar bill that was filed during the 2015 legislative session.
“We have never allowed it, and we never will … while marijuana may not be addictive in most cases, the same people who are susceptible to alcohol addiction are subject to marijuana addiction.”
Other members of the judicial system, including active duty police officers and a retired judge spoke out in favor on HB 81, saying it was the right thing to do.
Recent polling by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune from February of this year found that 53 percent of Texans support marijuana legalization. A poll done by the same organization in June of 2015 showed 68 percent support for reducing the penalty for low-level marijuana possession.
About 60,000 Texans are arrested each year for simple marijuana possession
This will be the first time since 1973 a marijuana penalty reduction bill has been heard by the Texas House, and a first time for many legislators to be on record about their stance on a major piece of marijuana penalty legislation.
In all, 40 of the House’s 150 members have signed on in support of the bill. A simple majority of 76 is needed for the legislation to progress into the Senate. If approved there, it will be sent back to the House for another vote pending any changes by the Senate, before heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
Gov. Abbott can choose to sign it, let it sit until it becomes law on its own, or veto the legislation, which would require a two-thirds majority vote by the legislature to override. The governor has stated in the past that he will not allow Texas to legalize marijuana and would oppose any legislation which moves the state in that direction.
Those interested in how the bill proceeds from here are encouraged by supporters of the bill to call and email their representatives.