Advocates for marijuana reform waited up to 10 hours to testify Monday night at the Texas Capitol in support of a bill that would dramatically reduce criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
HB 81, the last of 11 bills heard by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Monday, would eliminate any jail time or threat of arrest for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana and the offense would be punishable with a fine of $250. The offense would not generate a criminal record, but law enforcement may still seize any amount of marijuana. The drug would remain illegal.
Today, under the Texas Controlled Substances Act of the Health and Safety Code, a person possessing two ounces or less of marijuana commits a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to six months in jail.
“You wouldn’t get a criminal drug charge and that is what follows someone for life and why this legislation is so important,” said Heather Fazio before the hearing. Fazio is political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group supporting marijuana reform in Texas. “We’re seeing people having their lives altered through their access to education, employment, housing, and driver’s license suspension when it comes to even a tiny amount of marijuana if they’re convicted.”
The bill, which has bipartisan support, is authored by state Reps. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, and has 35 co-sponsors. SB 170, authored by Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, is the companion measure in the Senate.
Of the 28 people registered to testify, only Bobby Bland, Ector County District Attorney, testified against the bill, arguing that the bill might present a problem whenever officials attempt to search a car or a person after smelling marijuana.
“It may be difficult for officers to enforce it,” Bland said. “If searches are done, a judge may say there is a lack of probable cause if they base it on odor of marijuana. Right now, if there is odor of marijuana and a search is done, it’s no problem. But if part of the law is civil, they may start suppressing evidence that we need in burglaries and robberies and murders that we get whenever an officer smells marijuana.”
Moody, who is also the chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, said that his bill was not about legalizing marijuana, but about smart government, a bipartisan issue. He said it would still be a crime to drive under the influence of marijuana, and an officer can still search someone if they smelled marijuana.
By making possession of less than an ounce a civil penalty instead of a criminal one, Moody said police officers can remain on patrol, jails can be less crowded and prosecutors can spend more time working on more pressing cases.
“Keep in mind that selling marijuana would still be a crime,” Moody said. “Possession of more than an ounce would still be a crime. The message would still be Texas (does) not believe marijuana is OK.”
According to the most recent data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, 61,748 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2015.
Daryoush Zamhariri, an Austin testifier who has a business degree from the University of Texas at Dallas, was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana in 2010.
“A marijuana-related arrest record made finding suitable housing difficult, has limited my employment opportunities, and has created a barrier to furthering my education because of restrictions on financial aid,” Zamhariri said. “It took six squad cars totaling eight officers, including a K-9 team, to arrest me. Why are we arresting and prosecuting non-violent productive citizens, instead of diverting those resources to catch violent criminals?”
Texas would be the 22nd state to stop jailing people for small amounts of marijuana if the bill were signed into law. The bill was left pending in committee.
This story was published in the San Antonio Express-News March 13, 2017.