Pot Heads Up

Texas marijuana bill gets nod from committee and jumps to next step

Texas marijuana bill gets nod from committee and jumps to next step

The potential decriminalization of marijuana in Texas moved forward an inch. Photo courtesy of Allie Beckett

A proposal to reduce penalties for marijuana possession in Texas was approved by a committee on April 3, and now it gets bumped up to the next step: a full vote in the Texas House of Representatives.

The measure received bipartisan approval from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, passing by a vote of 4-2, with support from two Democrats and two Republicans.

HB 81, authored by committee Chairman Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) with 37 co-authors, would remove the threat of arrest, jail time, and a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of up to $250.

Under current Texas law, individuals found in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can be arrested and given a criminal record, and face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

To sweeten its chances, Moody offered a revised version of the original bill to allow judges the option of elevating the civil offense to a Class C misdemeanor if the suspect has already been cited three times for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Two Republicans voted against it: Cole Hefner, of Mt. Pleasant, and Mike Lang, of Granbury. C'mon guys, really.

Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, calls the proposal a "moderate shift" in how Texas manages low-level marijuana offenses.

"The state's current policy of arresting and jailing people for simple marijuana possession is completely unwarranted," she says in a release. "Law enforcement officials' time and limited resources would be better spent addressing serious crimes.

"No one should be saddled with a lifelong criminal record simply for possessing a substance that is less harmful than alcohol," she says. "Texans overwhelmingly agree that the punishment for simple marijuana possession should be reduced to a simple fine."

There were 61,749 marijuana possession arrests in Texas in 2015, and more than 418,000 from 2010-2015, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The ACLU reported in 2013 that African Americans in Texas are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested for low­-level possession offenses than whites, despite consuming marijuana at about the same rate.

According to a June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, more than two-thirds of Texans, or 68 percent, support reducing the penalty for low-level marijuana possession to a citation and $250 fine; only 26 percent are opposed.

The proposal still isn't in the clear. It now advances to the Calendars Committee, which determines whether it will get a crack at a vote by the full House.