A bill filed Monday morning will decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Texas. The bill, numbered H.B. 507, would make knowing or intentional possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a non-criminal offense with a civil penalty of no more than $100.
“Our current marijuana policy in Texas just isn’t working,” said Rep. Joe Moody (D, El Paso) the bill’s author. “We need a new approach that allows us to more effectively utilize our limited criminal justice resources. This legislation is a much-needed step in the right direction.”
Police are prohibited from arresting a person for possession of an ounce or less. Instead, they will issue a citation that gives a date for an appearance in a justice of the peace (JP) court. The JP court is a low-level court in Texas that typically hears traffic violations, minor juvenile issues and civil small claim matters. The court has the option of issuing the penalty, or may reduce or waive the penalty if the person agrees to attend an educational program or perform 10 or fewer hours of community service.
The person will not have a conviction on his or her record. The identity of the person found liable (not “guilty,” since this is not a criminal offense) will be confidential.
Moody focused largely on the “good government” aspect of the law, including the significant cost of police resources. In 2012, about 90 percent of burglaries and 88 percent of motor vehicle thefts went unsolved. Moody, a former prosecutor, said arresting and booking a person for marijuana possession takes an officer about half a shift. Prosecutors also must spend time and resources on possession cases that could be spent on domestic violence and DWI, he said.
“Marijuana enforcement is a money pit,” Moody said. “We spend much more every year policing pot than we make from fines. There are about 70,000 arrests per year in Texas for possession of marijuana, which accounts for 6.56 percent of all arrests.”
Matthew Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, concurred that Texas misspends on marijuana law enforcement.
“The state spent $250 million on enforcement, possession only, money that could have been invested in any number of ways, including in ways to address these problems with public health solutions,” Simpson said.
Moody, Simpson and other speakers also spoke on the injustice created by current laws. For instance black people are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
“I’ve sent four people to death row and thousands to the penitentiary, so I’m not exactly soft on crime,” said retired District Court Judge John Delaney of Bryan. “But our criminal laws should be sensible, and should not be a boot on the neck of people in the margins.”
Delaney, who served as a district court judge in the Brazos Valley from 1984 to 2000 and has since served as a visiting judge in the state, said people are often unaware of the true consequences of a marijuana conviction. Penalties for marijuana possession under two ounces include up to a year in jail and a fine up to $2,000, along with a permanent criminal record.
However, many people are not aware that they lose their driver’s license for up to a year, Delaney said. Those that do not know are often hit with another suspension and criminal offense once caught, he said. Those who adhere to the suspension often lose their jobs and cannot go to work or school, he said.
Moody said he anticipated some pushback that the law “promotes” marijuana use. He pointed out that the sale of marijuana and possession of more than one ounce remains a crime and that no state that had engaged in this sort of decriminalization had seen either a spike in marijuana use or in hard drug use.
He said there might be claims that the law would be an unfunded mandate on counties. However, other states have seen cost savings with this type of legislation, he said.
There will also be no effect on searches or seizures or generally on officer authority, he said.
Moody said, however, that he had not heard any pushback of this type from Republican colleagues. Republicans dominate the Texas House 98-52. The Speaker in the 2015 session, who is likely to be current Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, sets the agenda. Republican support, therefore, is necessary to the bill’s passage. However, Moody said Republican members he has spoken to about the bill have said the proposal “makes sense” and that they are hearing support from people in their districts.
“They don’t hear what you would think would be the typical pushback on a bill like this,” he said, adding that some expressed concerns about passage but that “from a policy perspective, I haven’t met much resistance at all.”
Monday’s announcement featured Republican activists, including Ann Lee of Houston, founder of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP). Lee became involved with promoting more sensible policy on cannabis in 1990 when her son, a paraplegic, told her marijuana was critical in managing pain while avoiding the types of side effects people using pharmaceuticals experience.
Lee said general Republican principles of small government and individual responsibility should lend themselves to better policy on cannabis.
“There is broad support for reducing marijuana possession penalties, and it spans the political spectrum,” she said. “The prohibition of marijuana is diametrically opposed to the Republican principles of limited government, individual responsibility and personal freedom. There is nothing conservative about it.”
Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, was upbeat on the bill’s chances this session.
“There has never before been such a comprehensive and professional coalition working together toward marijuana law reform in Texas,” Fazio said referring to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a coalition of organizations working together to change marijuana policy in Texas. Coalition partners include:
- ACLU of Texas
- DFW NORML
- Drug Policy Alliance
- Drug Policy Forum of Texas
- End Mass Incarceration
- Houston NORML
- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
- Libertarian Party of Texas
- Marijuana Policy Project
- Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA)
- Mothers Against Teen Violence
- Progress Texas
- Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP)
- Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas
- Second Chance Democrats
- Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)
- Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
- Texans for Accountable Government
- Texans for Medical Freedom
- Texas NORML
- Texans Smart on Crime
- Texas Tenth Amendment Center
Several members of Houston NORML were present at the press conference, including Jason Miller, Executive Director, Cara Bonin, Katy Regional Director, Ann Lee, Executive Director of RAMP, and Zoe Russell, Assistant Director of RAMP.