Texas marijuana decriminalization bill allows for 3 strikes
A bill to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Texas a civil fine of $250 has been amended to include a three strikes rule. It may also be several weeks before the bill is considered for scheduling to the full Texas House of Representatives.
HB 81, filed by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) passed out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this past week on a 4-2 vote. One of the committee members, Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), was expected to vote yes on the legislation as well, however he was out of town at the time.
Voting in favor of the bill were both the Chair and Vice Chair of the committee, Rep. Moody and Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) respectively. Also voting yes was Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) and Rep. Terry Wilson (R-Marble Falls).
Voting no were both Rep. Cole Hefner (R-Mt. Pleasant) and Rep. Mike Lang (R-Granbury).
Before the vote, the bill was amended to include language which leaves in place the fine for a first offense. On the second and third offense however, a mandatory drug education class will have to be taken. After a third offense, a district attorney will be able to proceed forward with a Class C misdemeanor charge. Previously the legislation allowed for an unlimited number of offenses to be handled with fines.
The aim of this bill according to Rep. Moody is to free up police resources, and stop putting people in jail while giving them criminal records. Another aspect of this bill would prevent people from having their driver’s license suspended over a drug conviction, which is currently the case, even if a vehicle is not involved. This would no longer be in effect once a person commits a fourth offense.
Current law provides for a $2,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail, along with a mandatory six months driver’s license suspension.
At a hearing held earlier this year for HB 81, only one person spoke in opposition, Ector County District Attorney Robert Bland. His primary concerns were that officers would not be able to correctly charge people in the field if one amount required an arrest while another was only a ticket, and also that this would prevent officers from searching a person or vehicle if they smell marijuana.
HB 81 protects the ability for police officers to conduct a search if they smell marijuana.
A similar bill was passed during the 2015 legislative session, however it was never scheduled by the Calendars Committee to be heard by the full House. This has been attributed to the lateness in which the bill was passed by the committee.
During this session, House majority leader Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) was slow to form committees, however HB 81 made it out of committee in quick order. The bill will still have to wait on the Calendars Committee, which schedules all legislation to be heard, to clear their plate of all budget related bills.
This could take up to several weeks, however the Chair of the Calendars Committee, Rep. Hunter, has already shown his support for the bill by voting for it in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. This is a good indication that the bill will keep traction, however it is still up to members of the Calendars Committee to vote for scheduling HB 81. It is not yet known whether there are enough yes votes to schedule the legislation.
Representatives of both Texas NORML and Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy have been at the capitol on a near daily basis to lobby for HB 81 and other bills. At this time, people are encouraged to reach out to their own representative and speak to them about supporting this penalty reduction bill once it leaves the Calendars Committee. However, they are warning that too many people contacting legislators in the committee who are not their direct representative could have an adverse effect on the bill’s chances for scheduling.
Should the bill reach the House, merely getting a recorded vote on HB 81 would be considered a historic step. Currently there are 39 legislators signed on in support of the bill out of 150 in the House, and others are expected to vote in favor if given the opportunity.
The biggest opposition will come from the Senate, where Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is focusing on his preferred agenda, meaning that the Senate may not consider the bill, even if it passes from the House. There is also a roadblock in the form of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has in the past stated that he is in opposition to any move which would bring marijuana closer to legalization.
The 85th Texas legislative session is slated to end on May 29, 2017.