Texas legislators are pushing for the decriminalization of cannabis. An odd-ball trio of Texas legislators has allied in order to better organize their efforts to abolish current cannabis laws in the state.
Joe Moody, Democratic rep from El Paso, is the main author a new bill, House Bill 63. Mark Gonzalez, the District Attorney of Nueces County where jails are over-crowded due to an abundance of cannabis-related crime offenders. And Joe Palmer, a long-time public activist who believes the current laws are doing more harm than good to the citizens of Texas.
Moody’s bill is the last of three attempts to decriminalize possessing small amounts of cannabis in the state. If passed, the bill would turn possessing pot into a civil matter. The offender would receive a ticket versus being arrested. Furthermore, the fine, of up to $250, wouldn’t appear on a criminal record either. In comparison to the current laws, the same infraction results in a class B misdemeanor, shows up on record, carries a fine of up to $2,000 and a sentence six months in jail.
The bill would not legalize pot, like many other states; rather, its main focus is to aid the state’s courts and law enforcement system. Currently, the state shells out over $730 million each year on prosecuting offenders. A majority (97 percent) of those cases are nothing more than individuals caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis.
“It makes us less safe because that arrest takes an officer off the street for up to half a shift dealing with processing and paperwork, then further overcrowds our jails and clogs our courts,” Said Moody. “And it does absolutely nothing to deter marijuana use since usage has remained steady for years.”
Right now in the Lone Star state, there are roughly 60 cannabis-related bills being kicked around. Some focus strictly on furthering the legalization of medical cannabis related issues. Other pieces of legislation are centered around the effects of legal cannabis on those who apply for or receive assistance from the state. Most of these bills are far from making it to the Senate let alone the state House. That said, House Bill 63 may have a better chance than the others.
“Marijuana isn’t a public safety concern,” said Moody. “This reform has real steam behind it.”
In 2015, and again in 2017, Moody filed other bills. Each of which never made it to a vote. This year, however, his new bill may have Republican support. That means it has a much greater chance of reaching a vote on the House floor.
A total of 14 states have recently decriminalized cannabis possession of small amounts or turned it into a misdemeanor. On this note, a professor at Rice University in Houston, Mark Jones, wrote about the odds of Texas legalizing cannabis. He believes that the chances of full legalization are slim. That said, with the new coalition of liberal Republicans and Democrats, the professor thinks the state may be on the verge of at least decriminalizing the herb.
“On the Democratic side, there is virtually universal support for decriminalization,” Jones said.
Jones went on to say that Liberals have made it clear they believe folks should be allowed to smoke cannabis if they so choose to do so. Furthermore, he believes the cost of incarcerating people and the fact that time served in jail limits the amount of income for arrested individuals. Not to mention they are given a criminal record as well.
Aside from Moody, four other legislators from the Texas House are co-authors of the House bill 63: Republican Dade Phelan of East Texas, Democrat Nicole Collier, Republican James White, and Democrat Harold Dutton. Additionally, the bill has 21 co-sponsors as well. Among the most notable of these co-sponsors are conservative Briscoe Cain and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi.
“I’ve largely supported decriminalizing or lowering the criminal penalties of nonviolent offenses,” said Cain. “It’s unfortunate that some people’s lives are completely derailed due to one nonviolent infraction.”
The current cannabis possession laws result in offenders receiving fines, jail time, and criminal records. Also, they face the loss of job opportunities, housing opportunities, and financial aid for school.
“Passage of this bill helps our neighbors, our friends and people we will never meet stay out of jail in the first place,” Palmer said.
Last year, the Republican pushed for an even lower civil penalty than that of House Bill 63.
Another supporter of the House Bill 63, Jame Dickey, is the Republican Party of Texas chairman. “We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” he said.
On the other hand, the office of Texas’ Governor, Greg Abbott, didn’t respond to questions concerning House Bill 63. To date, Abbott has said he is open to the elimination of jail time for cannabis possession (in small amounts) but doesn’t support full decriminalization. He does not support the legalization of cannabis by any means.
Things don’t look so good for cannabis advocates in the Texas Senate either.
Lt. Gov., Dan Patrick, is a long-time opposer of changing any of the state’s cannabis laws. “Lieutenant Governor Patrick is strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana, and he remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug,” said Alejandro Garcia, a spokesman of the Texas Senate.
The Texas Police Chiefs Association also opposes House Bill 63. “Not all marijuana smokers are drug addicts, but all drug addicts have started with marijuana,” said a Plano Police Department Detective, Terence Holway “So I am a firm believer that is still a gateway drug.”
Former captain of the Fort Worth PD and now State Rep., Phil King, also opposes the legislation to decriminalize cannabis possessions of small amounts. “We want people, especially young people, to go out and find a job and become productive citizens,” King said King. “But in my mind, it’s still a gateway. It seems to me, we have to find a balance.”
Recent statistics from the Texas Department of Public Safety indicate that roughly 60,000 arrests for cannabis possession occurred in 2017. The number of convictions is unknown. That said, arrests for such things show up on people’s criminal records for years.
All of that taken into consideration, House Bill 63 would not affect laws to do with driving under the influence. The same penalties would remain. “The civil penalty system keeps people accountable, but employable,” said Moody.
An Army veteran who suffers from PTSD, and uses cannabis as a treatment, told the committee that it works much better than “the cocktail of meds” his doctors prescribe him. He went on to mention other Vets and how “We’re looked at as criminals.”
Another solution offered up by a Lawyer from Corpus Christi, Kyle Hoelscher, who is also a director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is to cite offenders of cannabis possession but not to charge them.
A similar program is already in place in El Paso County since 2017. First-time offenders possessing four ounces of cannabis or less are sentenced to community service rather than criminal charges. They also face a $100 fee.
In Nueces County, where Gonzalez is District Attorney, first-time offenders are subject to a new program that diverts nonviolent offenders caught with small amounts of cannabis from serving jail time.
“We have to decide when enough is enough (and) to be smart on crime,” Gonzalez recently told the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in regards to House Bill 63. “Our jails are being overcrowded. We have to decide (how) we can get people who don’t belong in jail out of jail.”
Even more, Hoelscher says the bill needs to be passed because it’ll create a standard for decriminalization throughout all of Texas. “It’s actually my favorite bill of the whole session,” he said.
Director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, Heather Fazio, is another supporter of the bill. She also backs additional bills that would pass medical cannabis legalization as well. “There are a lot of people who have marijuana convictions on their record, but the difficulty is there are so few them who want to relive that part of their lives,” said Fazio.
In addition, member of the Texas Young Republicans Federation, and political director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, John Baucum, says cannabis laws are harder on young offenders than any. “Young Republicans, in particular, find the harshness and wastefulness of our current policy to be unacceptable,” said Baucum.