Marijuana Reform Bill Gets a Hearing in the Texas House

As most marijuana-reform advocates know, getting any bill passed in Texas relating to even the tiniest amounts of pot "is like trying to clean the Statue of Liberty while licking it," as State Representative Harold Dutton (D-Houston) once described it.

But at least on Monday, one marijuana bill will get a few more licks closer — or however you want to put it.

House Bill 81, filed by Representative Joe Moody, aims to make the punishment for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil fine of $250, rather than arresting and charging people with a Class B misdemeanor. That way, some 20-year-old college kid caught with a half a joint in his backpack won't need to fall behind in class and maybe lose his scholarship or his job at the local coffee shop while sitting in jail even for just a few days — all for getting high over the weekend. (If people are indigent, the $250 fine can be waived and they can do community service or take a substance-abuse class instead.)

On Monday, lawmakers on the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will hold a public hearing to consider the bill, hearing from a host of stakeholders supporting and opposing it. Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy put out a call for experts or people whose lives have been ruined after being jailed for a small possession of weed to testify, asking scores more to trek down to the Capitol to show their support for the bill.

It's among the most modest of several marijuana reform bills filed in the Lege this session — but Houston NORML Executive Director Cara Bonin said any progress, however small, is good.

"It's more palatable and has a greater chance of passing," she said. "I think that the people of Texas would like to see more lenience, but I believe that the current Republican guard leading the Legislature is still incredibly ignorant and stuck in their ways, so I don't think they would pass anything more productive."

Other bills include one by Dutton to make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor— essentially making it like a traffic ticket. It has failed every session since 2003. Proposals that are much wider in scope include two resolutions filed by  filed by State Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), each to legalize medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. If passed in the Lege, they would be placed on November 2018 ballots for voter approval.

But before resolutions like those have a shot, Bonin said, Texas probably needs to take baby steps until Republicans are more comfortable with larger weed reforms. In fact, she's hoping they might learn something from Harris County's sweeping changes to marijuana enforcement.

Starting March 1, the Harris County District Attorney's Office and local law enforcement stopped arresting and prosecuting people caught with less than four ounces of marijuana. Instead, all misdemeanor marijuana defendants will pay to take a $150 "decision-making" class and avoid a criminal record altogether (again, exceptions can be made for indigent people who can't afford to pay $150). Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said law enforcement has spent $250 million arresting, jailing and prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana defendants over the last ten years, with no apparent public safety benefit. Without having to worry about hauling potheads or casual smokers off to jail, Ogg said police can instead focus on violent crime and serious property crime.

Bonin said over the next few years, Houston NORML will seek to gather as much information about how the new program is working so that lawmakers might consider adopting it statewide. Given that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Tea Party conservative, said Ogg's new policy was creating a "sanctuary city" for drug offenders, that might take a while.

"It would be financially beneficial for the state, because we spend hundreds of millions of dollars prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases," she said. "We're essentially ruining people's lives due to drug convictions."

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