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Texas marijuana bills receive raves and rants during committee hearing

It was standing room only during the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing. Photo by Shaun McAlister www.iamshaun.com
It was standing room only during the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing. Photo by Shaun McAlister www.iamshaun.com

On a night when 22 bills were discussed in committee, marijuana by far was the most popular subject.

Over 60 people registered to testify on the four marijuana related bills which would decrease penalties for possession, and several of those same people testified on other drug penalty bills as well. It was standing room only for the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in the Texas House of Representatives.

The hearing lasted over six hours, and discussion began on the cannabis bills about four hours in  following discussion on bills which would itemize court costs, make flying drones less than 400 feet over industrial areas considered trespassing, changes to court procedures, victim remediation programs, requiring police to get a warrant in order to obtain cell phone data, and many bills concerning drugs, most of which would decrease the penalties for possession of small amounts.

Representative Harold Dutton was a fixture in the committee, coming forth to testify on many bills. At one point he cracked a joke about being ready to get to the “joint committee” as the room laughed, and was more serious later on as he cited the need for Texas to stop imprisoning so many people, saying “the more prison cells we have, the more people we’ll find to put in them.”

He also cited that Texas leads the world in incarceration rates.

One person made the remark that possession of a small amount of drugs is considered worse in Texas than domestic violence, referring to the former being a felony, while the latter is a misdemeanor.

Discussion of the marijuana bills began with House Bill 414, filed by Rep. Dutton and supported by Rep. Ron Reynolds.

Filed originally in 2003, Dutton was a little terrified at first of introducing the bill considering that Texas had just finished up building a large amount of prisons. However, after talking to many judges who did not want to ruin the lives of young people for simple possession of marijuana by giving them records which would harm them for life, Dutton decided the bill needed to come out, and it has been introduced in every session since.

The bill would make less than an ounce of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, meaning that it would be a ticket only offense. The judge presiding over the case could also require completion of a drug abuse program as well, and after completion and payment of fine, there would be no record.

Repeat offenders are taken into consideration as well. Getting a ticket for the same offense more than three times in a 24 month period would result in the charge going back to a Class B misdemeanor.

House Bill 507 followed next, introduced by Rep. Joe Moody. It would set a maximum fine of $250 for possession of an ounce or less, and would require community service and drug education classes.

“This bill is about good government, laws that lead to a smart, fair outcome in a cost effective way” Moody told the committee. “Current marijuana laws don’t do that, the system costs way too much and adversely affects too many people.”

He stated that over 60,000 people are arrested per year for marijuana in Texas.

Rep. Moody says the laws have not deterred the consumption of cannabis, and by passing his bill, police and prosecutors can spend time on more important cases and it will stop hurting the future of people.

He stressed that marijuana would still be illegal, but addressed some fears, saying that there hasn’t been a usage increase in states where penalties have been reduced, there has been no gateway effect, and in Colorado where the plant is fully legal, usage has gone down.

“Nothing new has to be done with the system, it will only save money. If an officer pulls over a driver high on marijuana it’s still a DUI, they can still search a vehicle if they smell marijuana, and people out in public will be cited for public intoxication” he states. “This keeps people out of jail and on the job. It’s a better investment of resources, and prosecutors and police have the discretion to either enforce the ticket or not, just as they would with a speeding ticket.”

Many people were at the hearing in anticipation of the next bill, HB 2165 which would repeal all marijuana offenses in Texas.

“This bill would repeal prohibition,” said Rep. David Simpson, who sponsored the legislation. He said the bill was introduced to help those in the district he serves “to access the plant God made for treatment of seizures and chronic pain.”

He told several stories of families who have exhausted all pharmaceutical avenues and the only thing they have left to turn to is medical cannabis, which has been shown to hold medicinal properties. Most recently a 9-year-old girl from Texas went 33 days straight without having any seizures after moving to Colorado and beginning treatment with cannabis. She used to have seizures every few hours.

“Families have to risk everything to get treatment for their children and other family members” Rep. Simpson said. Adding, “this is my medical marijuana bill.”

He touted the bill as taking a limited government, personal responsibility approach. That it does not expand government or create a registry of users, and enables responsible people to use the plant for good purposes.

“Some will abuse this, but we don’t put people into prison if they abuse alcohol or tobacco unless they are harming someone else” he stated.

Simpson cited scripture in support of his bill, saying “God condemns excessive use, but doesn’t ban the substances. We need to focus on when we harm our neighbor. Children are suffering, and no one should have to endure that if they don’t have to. God could have made us slaves, but he made us free individuals.” Simpson has often said that “God did not make a mistake when he created the cannabis plant.”

He went on to say “parents are the best regulation for minors, but not all children have good parents. This bill prohibits the sale of marijuana to minors, and requires proof of age to purchase marijuana or receive samples.”

It would be a Class C misdemeanor to sell to a minor.

He also cited the fact that this bill would undermine the drug cartels and take away 60 percent of their revenue.

“It’s not enough to stop punishing people for an ounce or two, we need to divorce marijuana from criminal activity. If it’s ok to use responsibly, it’s ok to deliver it and grow it.”

The general consensus was that a market for cannabis will exist whether it’s legal or not, and that marijuana arrests exceed all other arrests for violent crimes. “It’s a war on Texans” one man remarked.

The final piece of legislation discussed was House Bill 325, which would decrease the penalty for possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less. The bill was bi-partisan with eight sponsors.

Rep. Gene Wu, the primary sponsor of the bill made the argument that the punishment should fit the crime. Most offenders are young, can’t make bail, and they get a record because they plea out.

Rep. Wu, who is a former prosecutor, stated he knew that of the thousands he convicted, he was wrecking their life because it would stop them from going to college, getting good jobs, prevent them from renting in most places, or getting licensed for anything.

The bill would make less than 10 grams a ticketable offense with no arrest, carrying a penalty of a $150 fine, a drug class, and community service.

The Texas State Troopers Association has come out in support of the bill, saying current policy takes troopers away from patrol, and that their time could be better used for public safety on roadways.

Other law enforcement officials were present at the hearings as well, most notably the Texas Sheriff’s Association, which fully came out in opposition to any bill which would decrease the penalty for any drug.

While the grand majority testified in support of reforming marijuana laws, talking about the positive things that cannabis has done and the destruction of the drug war, there was a small but determined opposition as well.

Many people talked about how it would adversely affect children, and keeping children safe seemed to be their focal point. While marijuana is non-toxic, they cited the “gateway theory” which has been proven to be false many times.

Several people talked about how their children had died, and that they believe it all began with them consuming marijuana and then moving on to harder drugs. Some people said that changing marijuana laws would certainly lead to more deaths. A grandfather stated that his grandson almost “smoked himself to death.”

A federal narcotics agent at one point testified, saying he believes in liberty, but said that liberty must be restricted in favor of responsibility.

At one point a pastor testified and scolded Rep. Simpson for citing God, saying that he was distorting scripture to press his own agenda.

Recent polls by Texas Tribune show 77 percent of Texans want to decrease the penalties for marijuana possession, while almost as many support legalizing medical marijuana. Other polls have consistently shown that about 58 percent of Texans favor outright legalizing cannabis.

These four bills may or may not be put to a vote by the committee, and could be largely influenced by the number of people who call the committee members about putting the bills to a vote.

By: Stephen Carter

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Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is a journalist and information technology specialist living in Waco, Texas. He has been working with the cannabis movement since 2009. He founded Texas Cannabis Report in 2013 to bring Texans accurate cannabis related news.

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