Texas marijuana policy discussion refuses to die
The recurring theme for committee hearings on marijuana legislation in Texas this year is progress, a lack of opposition, and that policy discussion is here to stay. This past week was no exception. One legislator did however come out swinging against a proposed penalty reduction bill during a recent hearing.
Unlike previous years, opposition testimony for cannabis legislation has been nearly non-existent during the 2017 legislative session, which now includes the current special session called by Governor Greg Abbott. On Wednesday last week the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a hearing for HB 334, which would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a $250 civil fine. Three people registered against the bill, including representatives of Texas Values and the Texas Municipal Police Association, but did not testify.
This is the same bill which was passed out of committee during during the regular session, previously HB 81. Both were introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) who chairs the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. There is one difference between the original version first filed before the session began, and the one which was passed out of committee and debated this past week however.
Rep. Moody made it a point to touch on that difference, as some were caught off guard by the change. He states that under his original bill, there was no limit to the number of times that a person could receive a ticket for possessing marijuana, and that this hindered building coalition support for the advancement of this legislation. This led to the committee adding a three strikes policy, where if after a third time a person receives a citation, they could then be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.
As Rep. Moody began to lay out his bill to committee members at the start of the hearing, he stated that people refer to the bill as decriminalization, however “I tend to not utilize that term mainly because I think people equate decriminalization with legalization … it is not, it keeps everything illegal, but makes it a civil sanction, not a criminal sanction.” He added that the bill allows them to create a stair-step for repeat offenders, referring to the three strikes policy.
Rep. Terry Wilson (R-Marble Falls), who voted in favor of the bill during the regular session, asked Rep. Moody if current policies pertaining to marijuana are working. Rep. Moody responded saying that it depends on your definition of success, but that this targets younger people the most, those between the ages of 17 and 25, people who will likely not have other interactions with the criminal justice system. He added that there does need to be accountability and acceptance of consequences for their actions, but questioned whether or not as legislators they need to change what the consequences should be for getting caught with marijuana.
Rep. Moody listed some of those consequences, noting that school loans would not be available, it’s harder to get a job, they have housing issues, it’s harder to get into the military, and there is the loss of driver’s license even if a vehicle is not involved. He noted that these issues are beyond the consequences of the criminal justice system, but that they can be addressed by tweaking whether or not this is a criminal or civil sanction. With a civil fine, there would be no criminal record, which effectively eliminates several of these extended penalties which people must cope with for life.
Rep. Wilson agreed, saying that it’s an enduring punishment for a lifetime. He also added that when he went back to his district to hold town halls, which he referred to as deeply conservative, that many people, including those in law enforcement, were supportive of this change.
Before testimony began, Rep. Mike Lang (R-Granbury), who voted against the bill earlier this year, asked Rep. Moody if it is the criminal justice that needs to be changed, or how the military accepts their people.
Rep. Moody stated that this was a fair question, but added that it is within the legislators’ power to change the criminal justice system here in Texas. Rep. Lang then pointed out that even if the law is changed, both the military and private industry can change their policy to no longer hire people who have been fined for possession under the new proposal. Rep. Lang then stated that the criminal justice system should stay the way it is.
Rep. Moody responded that Rep. Lang is not alone in that opinion. He then went on to say that he never thought that this was an issue that would be corrected immediately, but that it needs to be discussed. “We’ve come light years in at least we are discussing these things. We’re having good policy debates.”
Rep. Lang stated that he see’s the bigger picture though and that when you’re arrested for a small amount, it doesn’t seem like a big problem, but you get it from someone else, and they get it from someone else, and you have law enforcement going out and risking their lives to arrest these people with pounds of marijuana, so it’s a bigger picture than just having a couple of joints. Rep. Moody countered that if law enforcement is having to spend several hours booking someone for a couple joints, that’s time taken away from busting someone higher up the chain, and that this policy is a wiser use of resources. “Let’s punish these people in the right way, in a way that fits for what they did,” Rep. Moody concluded.
Further concerns were raised by Rep. Lang that this is opening the door to legalizing drugs, and it was noted that this would be discussed during the interim.
Several Texans testified in support of the bill, including Carlos Caro, an educator. He testified that Texas’ marijuana criminal laws began with a city ordinance passed in El Paso in 1915, and has since given rise to the largest prison population in the country, costing taxpayers roughly $3 billion per year on prisons and approximately $10,000 per marijuana arrest. He further cited official Department of Public Safety numbers from 2015 which showed that over 61,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession, and of those, 26,756 were between the ages of 17 and 24. He pointed to the same loss of opportunities for young people Rep. Moody had previously touched on. Caro expressed disappointment in how the opportunities for young people are so severely impacted by an arrest for possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Attorney Daniel Mehler spoke of racial and socioeconomic disparity in arrest data during his testimony, saying Hispanics are four times more likely, and African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested than a Caucasian for marijuana. He spoke of his own experience as a middle class kid who has smoked marijuana since he was a teenager and never had to worry about being arrested, and of his friends who were arrested, they hired a lawyer and everything was taken care of. He added that they never had to do probation or pay a lot of probation related fees, driving home the point that marijuana laws disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.
Jason Vaughn with Texas Young Republicans acknowledged that while the bill wasn’t currently on the House’s special session agenda, he stated “there’s never a bad time to do the right thing.”
Vaughn stated that he’s not a typical person to be speaking at such a hearing. Normally he is at the capitol speaking in support of pro-life bills.
He referenced a recent survey, saying that 77 percent of young Republicans supported such a bill, moving from a criminal penalty to a civil penalty.
“I don’t take drugs lightly at all, I’ve seen the devastating effect that hard drugs can have on people,” Vaughn told committee members. He also noted that he is from a family full of police officers. Part of the reason he is speaking for the bill is because he has met few police officers who want to arrest people for marijuana, partially because it takes several hours for police officers to make such an arrest, and also because spending even one day in jail can cause people to lose their jobs, which increases welfare costs. He also pointed to about $3 million in savings to be had from this bill.
Vaughn also quoted Corinthians 15:33 “Bad company corrupts good character” adding “Many of us realize that if you’re going to put somebody in jail, that’s one of the best places to learn to be a criminal.”
Rep. Lang commented at the end of the hearing in regards to recent statistics that he has seen out of Colorado. He stated “if we move toward decriminalization of marijuana, what Colorado has found is that it is not working. They have their DPS stats out that black youth, and we’re talking about youth, the arrests have gone up 58 percent, Latino youth 29 percent after legalization, and the school districts that thought they were going to get all of the money, they haven’t seen anything except for an increase in the use of marijuana. So when we start to go down this road, we need to be careful on what we do as far as whether we are going to decriminalize it, civil penalties, how we start, because the stats are there that it’s not working out. We talk about jobs for youths, if you have an increase of 58 percent and 29 percent increase in the different communities of color like we were talking about, that’s worse than where we’re at now.”
Daniel Hall, an attorney and nurse, who testified last and was standing at the podium when Rep. Lang made these comments, stated that “my understanding is that they have legalized it, not just decriminalized it.” Rep Lang responded, “OK, legalized it.” Hall added that this is not what’s on the table here. Rep. Lang responded that decriminalization “is pretty close to legalizing it.” He concluded that the stats all show that the arguments are wrong, alluding to previous statements by those testifying in favor of the bill, including Rep. Moody.
Hall concluded that Rep. Lang is comparing apples to oranges, that they are discussing decriminalization here in Texas versus legalization in Colorado, and that he has not seen the stats that Rep. Lang is referencing.
Other people and groups released statements after the hearing, including Nick Novello, an active duty Dallas police officer with 35 years of experience, and Heather Fazio, the Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
“Most Texans oppose current penalties for marijuana possession,” states Novello. “Enforcing unpopular and unreasonable laws creates unnecessary hostility between law enforcement and the people in our communities.”
Fazio was hopeful for any progress. “Marijuana policy reform is coming to Texas sooner rather than later. There is no reason to let this year’s session end without voting on this bill. Waiting until 2019 will only result in wasted law enforcement resources and tens of thousands of Texans being saddled with a criminal record for using a substance that is safer than alcohol.”
While the committee can and possibly will vote to pass this bill again, it is extremely unlikely that Gov. Abbott will add it to the special legislative session agenda. The House has not yet passed everything the governor has asked for, and Gov. Abbott has stated in the past that he will not allow any legislation which advances Texas towards legalizing marijuana.
The next opportunity for a cannabis bill to be passed into law will be the next Texas legislative session in 2019. That won’t stop legislators from continuing to hold hearings, fact finding missions, discussions, and studies in the interim however. Marijuana policy discussion has taken up permanent residency at the capitol in Austin.