Across the United States, more and more states are embracing relaxed penalties for marijuana possession, as well as marijuana decriminalization and legalization. At the time of this writing, recreational marijuana is legal in four states and Washington, D.C. while medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and D.C. Here in the Lone Star State, a 2014 Public Polling survey revealed more than half of Texans supported further reducing penalties for possession of marijuana.
A powerful argument for legalization is, unsurprisingly, all about money. Specifically, how state money that could be used to improve roads and schools is being wasted on arresting and incarcerating thousands of adults and juveniles for misdemeanor possession.
Consider this: out of all U.S. states, Texas holds the dubious honor of having the largest prison population. On average, about 10,000 inmates are housed in the Harris County jail system each day, and it costs $48 to $59 a day to house just one of those inmates. At the same time, only nine percent of the state’s annual $3 billion corrections budget goes toward probation and other measures to prevent incarceration. Measures that are not only less expensive, but also more effective.
Why Current Marijuana Penalties Make No Sense
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there were a staggering 67,196 arrests in Texas for marijuana possession in 2014. That number includes 61,730 adults and 5,466 juveniles. Many penalties for marijuana possession, even for possession of less than two ounces, come with mandatory, often harsh, minimum sentences. These must be handed down by the judge, even if he or she does not agree with the law. However, decriminalization may slowly be making its way into Texas and Houston law.
In Harris County, a first-time, nonviolent drug offender caught carrying less than two ounces will be arrested if caught holding, but instead of being fined and/or sentenced to serve time in jail, will instead be required to perform eight hours of community service or attend a drug awareness class. Houston mayoral candidate Chris Bell points out that under current law, the Houston Police Department has the ability to issue a citation in lieu of arrest and incarnation for a misdemeanor marijuana possession. (Bell has said if elected, he will direct Houston Chief of Police Charles A. McClelland, Jr. towards stronger implementation this policy, which could save taxpayers millions of dollars and free up thousands of man hours for the HPD.)
Even Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr. agrees that when it comes to taxes and the so-called “war on drugs,” we need to get our priorities straight. In a radio interview, McClelland stated: “Taxpayers can’t afford to build jails and prisons to lock up everyone who commits a crime. We must put more money into crime prevention, treatment, education, job training.”
Texas Marijuana Legislation
Two bills that would have significantly reduced marijuana penalties in Texas recently died in the state legislature. House bill 507, submitted by Representative Joe Moody of El Paso, would have reduced the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana to no more than $250. (Currently, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana comes with a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000.) House bill 2165, submitted by Representative and Tea Party member David Simpson of Longview, would have removed all references to marijuana from the state criminal code, though it would have made it illegal to provide the plant to children. Although both bills made significant progress, Calendar Committee, under apparent pressure from House leadership, refused to schedule them for consideration.
The Future of Legalization in Texas
To put it bluntly, the proverbial genie is out of the bong, and it won’t be long before Texas politicians and lawmakers will finally give in to what the majority of their constituents are demanding: less spending on a pointless “drug war” that solves nothing, unfairly incarcerates men and women, and costs the state millions of dollars and man hours, and sensible marijuana laws that benefit the health and livelihood of hard working Texans.
Attorney Mark Thiessen of Thiessen Law Firm is a three-time Super Lawyers awardee. As one of Houston and Harris County’s most distinguished criminal defense teams, Thiessen Law Firm emphasizes quality over quantity, and is dedicated to the needs of each client.