Legislators in The Texas House Debate Marijuana Decriminalization Bill!
On Tuesday, a Texas legislative subcommittee heard testimony on a bill that would legalise possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it possible for people to do so without fear of prosecution or incarceration and eventually expunging the offence from their records.
Rep. Joe Moody (D), who chairs the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, explained the bill’s intent to his colleagues. “Basically, the person is given a ticket, goes to court, is assessed a fine, then the court tells them, ‘You’ve got six months to pay and they need to stay out of trouble during that time,'” Moody said.
“If the person fulfils their part, the court dismisses the charges,” the congressman said, “and on a request of the individual, deletes the complete record of it. The person loses money and time in jail but walks away clean.
Similar cannabis decriminalisation bills were approved by the full Texas House of Representatives in both the 2021 and 2019 legislative sessions. But, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has routinely blocked the plans.
Two independent bills from the current session have been combined into one, and it has passed the House of Representatives.
A poll conducted in December by the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project found that 72% of Texans favoured ending the state’s prohibition on marijuana. Additionally, over half (55%) of respondents expressed support for a more widespread legalisation. One in every seventeen people thinks it shouldn’t be legal at all.
The current 24-page proposal would reduce marijuana possession to a Class C misdemeanour with a maximum punishment of $500 and no possibility of jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In its current legal form, cannabis possession is a Class B misdemeanour punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Possession of up to two ounces of cannabis would not result in an arrest; instead, offenders would be issued a citation and allowed to go free. Also, for a $30 filing fee, people who have been convicted of marijuana possession for up to two ounces can petition the court to have their records wiped.
Moody emphasised, “I want to be absolutely clear: “This measure is not legalisation.” Instead, he called it a “right-sizing” of the penalty for possessing little amounts of cannabis. “At this time, we are prosecuting and detaining people for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.”
Moody highlighted the fact that the bill’s primary components had previously cleared the House twice. It develops a structure on which we have collaborated closely with the governor’s office to determine the details of how it would operate in practise, he said. Our team has met with the prosecutors. We have communicated with officers on the front lines of law enforcement. To make sure the system is functional, we’ve invited all relevant parties to participate.
Supporters of the plan anticipate it will once again receive support in the House, despite the fact that the committee didn’t vote on the idea at Tuesday’s meeting. Texas NORML predicted the bill “will rapidly advance out of the committee” in a recent blog post.
This morning we dropped off hearing binders with committee members in advance of the #HB218 hearing! We anticipate this bill will pass out of committee and encourage you to submit support virtually here: https://t.co/RcGdYvzm8b#txlege #TexasNORML #Texas #NORML pic.twitter.com/DX0d2UxNyA
— Texas NORML (@TexasNORML) February 28, 2023
Activists in Texas, where cannabis changes have been fought for and won, testified in favour of the law despite the absence of a mechanism for voters to place proposals on the state ballot. On Tuesday, witnesses included conservative activists, a veteran, and medicinal marijuana patients.
Several members of the committee have asked for tweaks to the bill, but everyone has said they support the larger push to reduce penalties for non-commercial possession.
Even while he has urged his fellow veterans to participate in the state’s limited medical marijuana programme, many continue to receive the substance through illegal sources, risking prosecution and jail time, as one Army veteran who says he uses cannabis to treat PTSD and chronic pain explained.
I’d like for them to be legit, but there are roadblocks, he admitted. The bill would help those veterans escape life-altering effects, the author said.
Two others have told lawmakers they live in constant fear of arrest and imprisonment because of their associations with medicinal marijuana: a medical marijuana user and the wife of a guy who uses cannabis as part of his treatment for cancer. One speaker expressed her approval of the reform but urged lawmakers to reduce the maximum penalty from $500.
The wife invoked biblical verses as she explained how cannabis had benefited her husband through cancer treatment but also risked landing him in jail, and she pleaded with politicians to see cannabis as a gift from God.
Will we face our creator on the Day of Judgment and tell him he was wrong? she pondered. We were more knowledgeable than he was. And we caged his people over a plant that he put on Earth to aid us?
Others brought out the problems that a cannabis conviction can cause in terms of getting a job or renting an apartment. The executive director of Texas NORML, Jax James, testified in writing to the committee that a marijuana conviction “creates a lifelong criminal record and has significant and enduring effects.”
James pointed out that young Texans and persons of colour are disproportionately affected by these outcomes. Almost 97% of all marijuana-related charges in the state are for possession, with approximately 50% of those arrested being in their teen years or early adulthood. Meanwhile, while the percentage of white Texans arrested fell by 7.6 percent between 2017 and 2021, the percentage of black and Hispanic Texans arrested rose by 5.9 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
The section prohibiting police from arresting in possession cases should be repealed if it stands in the way of the bill’s approval, according to Jason Vaughn, who works with the group Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition but testified solely for himself on Tuesday.
He elaborated, saying, “I enjoy that component of the bill, but “I have worked with a lot of our outstanding police officers around the state, and it is the thing that repeatedly they have told me is a hold up for them.”
On Tuesday, the committee also heard a proposal from Republican lawmaker Will Metcalf (HB 513) that would make it a separate crime to produce or distribute drugs that cause substantial bodily harm. Using this method, “law enforcement and district attorneys may bring those responsible to justice,” Metcalf said.
The bill would apply to the use of any “restricted substance or marihuana… regardless of whether the controlled substance or marihuana was used alone or with another substance, including a drug, adulterant, or dilutant,” as stated in the bill’s text.
An ongoing issue of unintentional opioid deaths has prompted the measure, with politicians claiming that the lack of disclosure by drug traffickers that their products include fentanyl is to blame. Reports surfaced that children in the state were tricked into buying fentanyl-laced fakes of popular study aids like Adderall.
While HB 513 is intended to increase the penalties for illegal drug sellers, it appears that the law may also apply to children who provide drugs to their peers through a secondary source, regardless of whether or not they are aware that the products contain fentanyl.
Similar to the cannabis bill, the committee decided to table Bill 513 at Tuesday’s hearing.
Meanwhile, campaigners have been successful in passing cannabis reform measures at the municipal level. Voters in Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen, and San Marcos have approved initiatives to decriminalise marijuana use.
In May of this year, San Antonio voters will decide on an initiative to legalise cannabis.
The City Council of Harker Heights just repealed the voter-approved decriminalisation initiative, but campaigners are seeking to qualify a ballot issue to reverse this decision.
A separate decriminalisation measure was overwhelmingly passed by voters in San Marcos, and advocates there are keeping an eye on the incoming district attorney’s request for a legal opinion from the state attorney general.