Being caught with a small amount of marijuana would be punishable only by a civil under legislation being carried by a key committee chairman.
AUSTIN – Being caught with a small amount of marijuana would be punishable only by a civil fine and would not involve the criminal justice system under legislation being carried by the newly minted chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
“Marijuana possession, even in small amounts, would still be illegal in Texas and it would still be confiscated and destroyed,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “But the difference is, merely being in possession is not going to put you in jail.”
Moody’s legislation, House Bill 81, classifies “a small amount” as an ounce or less of marijuana. Someone with that amount would be subject to a fine of up to $250. But no arrest would be made and no criminal record would follow, Moody said.
Last week, he was joined at the Texas Capitol by advocates for relaxing criminal laws for marijuana procession as well as a retired state district judge and representatives from the law enforcement community.
“Every year we arrest about 60,000 people in Texas for possession of tiny amounts of marijuana,” said retired judge John Delaney, who has long supported marijuana decriminalization efforts. “Each arrest takes about two hours of police time, not to mention the added burden on jails and courts.”
The legislation is similar to several measures that seek to scale back the punishment for the possession of marijuana for personal use. Last fall, the cities of Nashville and Memphis approved ordinances to allow police to issue civil citations for small amounts of marijuana.
Those cities, however, are facing push back by the Tennessee Legislature. According to the Tennessean, a USA Today Network newspaper in Nashville, the chairman of the state House Criminal Justice Committee has filed a bill that would not only nullify the local ordinance, it would prohibit other municipalities in the state from passing similar measures.
In Virginia, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week that among his legislative initiatives this year is decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Northam is the Democratic frontrunner in this year’s race for Virginia governor.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color,” Northam, a physician, said in a Feb. 13 blog post. “One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
In 2015, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he opposed efforts that would scale back penalties for marijuana possession. And the legislation Moody filed that was similar to his present bill never got to the House floor for a vote.
Moody this month was named chairman of the Jurisprudence Committee, which hears legislation related to crimes and punishment. He said he intends to schedule his bill for a hearing, although he has not set a date. He also has at least one Republican co-author, state Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, and more than three dozen Democrats as co-sponsors.
He said Texas spends more than $700 million each year dealing with low-level possession of marijuana cases.
“On top of that, the current punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” he said in an op-ed published last week by the El Paso Times. “Arrestees – mostly young people — are being saddled with permanent criminal records that can make them almost unemployable later.”