Bill reduces penalties for small amounts of marijuana

ALEX SAMUELS | 5/5/2019, noon
After a brief discussion, the Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would reduce the penalties for ...
The vote was lauded as a win by those eager for the state to take its first major step toward loosening its staunch marijuana laws. – Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera/The Texas Tribune

In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

Reached by email Wednesday afternoon, Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Patrick, confirmed that Patrick’s position had not changed. Moody’s companion bill in the Senate, authored by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, has yet to go before a committee.

Law enforcement officials, too, have raised alarm bells on Moody’s bill. Many are wary that relaxing the state’s marijuana laws by any means would eventually lead to the state legalizing the drug for recreational use.

Moody disputed that claim on the House floor.

“There are some people who have drawn a line in the sand and refuse to take any step forward whatsoever on reform,” he said. “They say it’s a full-on slippery slope to full-on legalization. The [bill] in front of you is not legalization. It’s not even decriminalization.

“We can’t legislate in fear of what some future legislators might do. We’re here to solve the problems of today. It’s not about whether marijuana is good or bad; it’s about whether what we’re doing on enforcement right now is good policy, and we all know it’s not.”

As originally proposed by Moody, HB 63 would’ve replaced the criminal penalties for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana and replaced it with a civil fine of up to $250. Only those fined more than three times would face misdemeanor criminal charges.

When laying out his original bill to a House committee earlier this year, Moody said his bill would save the state money since counties wouldn’t have to allocate resources toward prosecuting Texans found to possess small amounts of the drug.

Debate on the House floor was relatively tame. A handful of lawmakers lauded Moody for authoring the bill, but state Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, said that any lawmaker who voted in favor of it was “voting to legalize marijuana.”

Bell was met with yells of “no” from other lawmakers on the House floor.

Decriminalizing marijuana or lessening the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of the drug has broad bipartisan support. In its most recent platform, the Republican Party of Texas approved a plank for the first time in support of making it a civil, rather than a criminal, offense to possess an ounce or less of marijuana.

During a gubernatorial debate in September, Gov. Greg Abbott wouldn’t go that far – but he opened the door to reducing the penalty for low-level possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor.

Other bills at the Capitol aimed at reducing the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of marijuana include similar measures by Democratic state Reps. Gene Wu and Harold Dutton – both of whom represent the Houston area. Dutton’s bill was voted out of a House committee but has not yet reached the House floor for a full debate.

Despite the last-minute changes to Moody’s bill, marijuana advocates largely applauded its passage from the lower chamber Thursday.

“Like a majority of Texas voters, Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree that marijuana laws need to change,” said Heather Fazio, the director for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “Representative Moody’s bill will preserve valuable public safety resources and keep a marijuana charge from derailing someone’s life.”

This article was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/04/29/texas-marijuana-house-penalty-reduction-bill by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.