Texas House decriminalizes marijuana in historic vote

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LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 30: Cannabis is displayed at Essence Vegas Cannabis Dispensary before the midnight start of recreational marijuana sales on June 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On July 1, Nevada joins seven other states allowing recreational marijuana use and becomes the first of four states that voted to legalize recreational sales […]

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Monday, the Texas House of Representatives voted into law a bill that will reduce criminal penalties for Texans who have small amounts of marijuana in their possession. 

House Bill 63 is an amended version of the bill authored by Representative Joe Moody (D- El Paso). Last week, the House adjourned early, postponing this bill and several others. 

Representative Moody’s office expected the bill to pass today with a majority of the votes. His office explained that the amendment to this bill this has started some new conversation and that lawmakers who were previously on the fence about it are now more comfortable with it. 

The amended version of the bill reduces penalties for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor and remove jail time as a punishment for those offenses. It will also offer a pathway to removing those charges from criminal records.

The original version of the bill would have downgraded the possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal penalty to a civil one, but Representative Moody said he had to make compromises on the original bill in order to get the support from opponents of the bill and law enforcement. 

“We did it in a way that alleviates major collateral consequences for offenders and also saves law enforcement resources and time and prosecutors resources and time,” Moody told KXAN last week. “So I think we achieve a lot of the same goals, using the same construct, to get it to that point.” 

In March, the bill passed out of House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on a 5-2 vote. 

Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a nonprofit that works on marijuana reform in Texas, says HB 63 has bipartisan support from 45 state representatives. 

At present, Texas law classifies possession of two ounces or less of marijuana as a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $2,000, 180 days in jail, drivers license suspension, and a permanent criminal record. In addition to lowering the charge to a Class C misdemeanor, HB 63 would allow the charge to be automatically removed from criminal records if all probation requirements are met. It would also allow those charged to keep their driver’s licenses. 

“Texas arrests more than 60,000 people annually for the simple possession of marijuana,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a group that supports HB 63. “Meanwhile, only 10 percent of burglaries are cleared (or solved) in our state. Victims of real crime deserve a justice system that is dedicated to protecting life, liberty, and property — not prosecuting people for marijuana.”

Fazio says that more than  20 states have eliminated jail time for marijuana possession.  

Groups that have opposed an earlier version of this bill include the Texas Police Chiefs Association and the Sheriff’s Association of Texas. KXAN has reached out to these groups to see if they support this amended version of the bill. 

The Texas Police Chiefs Association (TPCA) explained that the only piece of the bill they oppose now is the mandate that officers can only issue citations for Class C marijuana offenses. They told KXAN Monday that they are comfortable with the new proposed penalty groups in the bill.

Steve Dye, Police Chief for Grand Prairie and Committee Chair for TPCA on Marijuana Legislation, explained that TPCA supports a Class C Misdemeanor charge for the possession of a small amount of marijuana.

“While one ounce of marijuana is still a substantial quantity, Texas Police Chiefs advocate treatment, education/awareness, and rehabilitation for this addictive drug,” Dye said.

He continued that while most small amounts of marijuana are already being handled through officer citations, TPCA does not support the requirement that only a citation may be issued for Class C marijuana charges.  

“This mandate would remove officer discretion and their ability to be procedurally just in evaluating each circumstance on its own unique merits and effecting an arrest when other criminal activity is afoot or incarceration is the most appropriate recourse to protect the public and ensure defendant accountability,” Dye said. 

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