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Texas marijuana decriminalization hearing has lone opponent

Rep. Joe Moody speaking to the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on behalf of HB 81.
Photo by Heather Fazio

Rep. Joe Moody laid out a number of reasons today why the Texas Criminal Jurisprudence Committee should pass a bill which would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil penalty with no arrest or criminal record.

As he spoke to the committee on behalf of HB 81, a bill which Rep. Moody filed, he talked about how almost 70,000 Texans are arrested each year, most of which are young people. He lamented the fact that a kid in college could be busted for a gram of marijuana and then be treated like a criminal 30 years later in a job interview, that is, if they even get the interview in the first place.

The bill would create a civil penalty of up to $250, with alternatives such as drug education and community service.

A number of people spoke in favor of the bill, including one woman who gave each legislator a nickel, telling them that the amount of marijuana she was arrested for weighed less than that nickel.

A representative from the League of Women Voters of Texas came out in support of the bill during the hearing, saying that they consider this matter to be a public health issue and do not believe incarceration should be a part of the equation when it comes to dealing with small amounts of marijuana.

Hunter White, a second year law student who works with Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, spoke for the bill, saying that his values as a Republican drives him to support HB 81 given that it is good government policy and that law enforcement can make better use of their time. This was an overwhelming theme among those who spoke, including Rep. Moody.

The chair of the Texas Young Republicans, John Baucum, stated that many Republicans from all demographics support marijuana reform, especially young Republicans. He stressed that many major counties are already making marijuana a low priority, and in other states where they have stopped prosecuting low level marijuana offenders, consumption by youth has not risen.

David Smith, a disabled military veteran, told of his arrest for possession of .05 grams of marijuana, which he says puts his future in jeopardy as a student. Smith, like many others, tended to treat the hearing as an effort to promote the medical uses of cannabis.

A Criminal Justice Policy Analyst at ACLU of Texas also spoke in favor of the bill, saying it made the justice system more fair, and more practical. He spoke of the widespread racial disparity of marijuana arrests, saying that black people in Texas are more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, even though they consume the plant at a lower rate. He also cited a statistic showing that 31,000 arrests in 2016 would have been impacted had HB 81 already been in effect, meaning those arrests were all for possession of less than an ounce or marijuana. Another testimony put that number closer to 55,000.

One man spoke of his arrest involving six squad cars and a K9 unit despite there only being a very small amount of marijuana in his vehicle, further alluding to the waste of law enforcement resources. Others also spoke of the sheer amount of money wasted on marijuana offenses, as well as the economic losses resulting from such policies, including the declined productivity of people resulting from the loss of a driver’s license. Currently those found in possession of marijuana typically end up losing their license for six months, however HB 81 would end that practice.

At one point Cristina Ybarbo from Houston gave a very brief testimony saying that she would instead only submit her testimony in written form, which one of the legislators thanked her for. He went on to say that they do read the testimonies and are very tuned to the issue, saying that it has been talked about extensively.

Michael Cargill, the Executive Director for Texans For Accountable Government and a concealed handgun trainer, stated “I don’t do weed” but went on to say that he supports the legislation as well.

One person spoke in opposition to the bill, 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.

Rep. Moody asked Bland what an ounce of marijuana smells like, though Bland declined to answer, saying he was not a police officer. He rebutted his assertion, saying that officers still have probable cause to search vehicles should they smell marijuana. Bland referred to the way the law operates in other states, saying that they do not allow the smell of marijuana to give officers probable cause.

As a former prosecutor, Rep. Moody further stated that he believes law enforcement still has the tools to properly enforce the law, and that officers already enforce civil penalties alongside criminal penalties. “The reality in the field, there aren’t a lot of close cases” Rep Moody stated, referring to the fact that most possession cases are for small amounts and will not be a judgement call for officers.

The two debated at length near the end of the hearing, saying that they would work further on the matter in the future.

In all, lawyers, scholars, researchers, political analysts, and citizens alike came from across the state to speak in favor of HB 81. A full list of those registering on the bill will be released at a later date, where it will be revealed if anyone registered against the bill but did not speak.

Rep. Todd Hunter, the vice-chair of the committee, made note at the end of the hearing that he only heard one person against the bill, and an overwhelming response in support, and asked that if any groups intend to oppose the legislation, that they should reach out now rather than later.

Rep. Moody concluded that “this is the right thing to do” in reference to passing the bill, saying that when he was initially elected to the House, he never envisioned standing there asking the committee to pass such legislation, but that he has to consider the impact it has on a number of Texans. This concluded a two hour hearing on HB 81.

It is unknown when the bill will be voted on by the committee, however it is expected to pass. The next major challenge will come with the Calendars Committee, which failed to schedule a similar bill for a hearing by the full Texas House of Representatives during the 2015 legislative session due to how late in the session the bill was passed.

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Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is a 30 year old 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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