Trying to pass marijuana legislation in Texas "is akin to trying to clean the Statue of Liberty by licking it," State Representative Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said in a recent interview with Houston NORML.
Sure, it's no doubt been tough. But after four more states legalized recreational marijuana on November 8, might Texas be a little more inclined to at least take more baby steps?
Dutton is hoping the answer is yes. Last week, lawmakers filed several key marijuana-reform bills or proposals in the Legislature, ranging from a proposal allowing Texas voters to decide whether weed should be legalized to various bills that decriminalize possessing an ounce or less.
The most modest bills include El Paso State Representative Joe Moody's bill to replace criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana with a civil fine up to $250, which would allow Texans to avoid getting arrested, charged and jailed for the minor offense. Similarly, State Senator Jose Rodriguez, also of El Paso, proposed making possession of up to an ounce of weed a civil offense, taking it out of the criminal realm entirely. And then there's Dutton's bill, which has failed every time he's filed it since 2003: It would classify possession of an ounce or less of marijuana as a Class C misdemeanor instead of a Class B, making it like a traffic ticket.
"When I started this back in 2003, everybody looked at me and thought I was crazy. The committee chairman wouldn’t even give me a hearing on the bill," Dutton told Houston NORML's Jason Miller in an interview published by HoustonMediaSource. "Now, during the last session, we had one legislator who proposed a similar bill, then we even had another legislator who proposed legalizing it. So we’re moving along in a direction that I think ultimately will result in us taking a better look and having laws that are more akin to what the public wants."
Miller told the Houston Press he believes the bills focusing on possession of an ounce or less of marijuana have the best shot at passage, adding that Houston NORML would most prefer the bills that make possession a civil offense rather than a criminal one. But still, Miller said, while this would be a step forward, it still leaves a host of problems on the table.
"Even if we're going to decriminalize it altogether and not even have a civil fine," he said, "that still doesn't solve some of our problems. Decriminalization does nothing to restrict youth access. Decriminalization does nothing to curb the black market. You would still have the war on marijuana. And we still would have this war mentality of law enforcement going after people over this plant and finding dealers and putting them in jail, still creating a huge burden on taxpayers."
Rodriguez filed two legalization proposals in the Lege; one would only legalize medical usage (right now, only severely epileptic children are allowed to access tiny amounts of cannabis oil), and the other would legalize marijuana recreationally. Both are Senate Joint Resolutions, meaning they would be placed on the ballot in November 2018 for Texas voters to decide—but only if two-thirds of both chambers approve the resolution first.
Miller said while legalization in Texas is still a massive uphill climb, legislators who are hesitant about legalizing marijuana or even medical marijuana would be much more likely to vote to allow their constituents to decide, rather than voting to legalize it themselves. It would get the controversial issue out of their hands, he said.
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"It may be a little easier to get that to the floor," Miller said. "If legislators are forced to vote on it, they can vote in favor of [putting it on the ballot] but still be opposed to legalization. This way, we can at least recognize who the staunch prohibitionists are who don't even support people voting on it. I think that's the strategy behind that."
The only bill Miller said Houston NORML would not support is a proposal by State Representative James White (R-Woodville) that would create a special court for first-time marijuana offenders. Basically a copy-cat, weaker version of Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson's First Chance Intervention Program, White's program of the same name would allow charges to be dismissed against first-time, low-level marijuana offenders if they complete an eight-hour class or eight hours of community service. Miller said that would be a waste of resources: Texas doesn't need to create a state-sanctioned program when better ones, like Anderson's, which is offered to defendants before they are even charged, exist.
Besides, Anderson's successor, Kim Ogg, has even bolder ideas for marijuana reform. Ogg and incoming Sheriff-elect Ed Gonazalez plan to stop prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession altogether.
Looks like the Legislature has some catching up to do.