State Representative Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, must know there's more of a chance that the Texas Legislature will do a group rendition of the macarena than there is that House Bill 334 will get through the Legislature during the special session. Still, Moody held a public hearing on a bill he filed this week, pretty much just for the heck of it.
HB 334 would make possession of a small amount of marijuana a civil citation punishable by a $250 fine, but not a crime. Courts would allow some of the fine to be paid off through the offender taking drug education courses or doing community service. For a third offense, the civil penalty must include a drug education requirement. On a fourth offense, a prosecutor can proceed with a Class C misdemeanor instead of a civil citation.
During the regular session, Moody's bill did better than marijuana legislation has ever done in the past while still never coming anywhere close to being signed into law.
Still, the experience left Moody and the bill's supporters interested enough to try again and file it during the special session. And on Wednesday they went a step further and held a hearing on the bill to try to rally a little more support while also simply reminding people that this idea exists as lawmakers prepare to hibernate before the next legislative session convenes in 2019.
More than 60,000 Texans are arrested for marijuana possession annually, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which was pointed out during the hearing. Advocates asserted that this distracts law enforcement and prosecutors from priorities such as combating violent crime, which is on the rise in Texas. A marijuana conviction not only can result in jail time, but carries collateral consequences and can make it difficult to find employment, obtain public housing or qualify for student loans.
“Most Texans oppose current penalties for marijuana possession,” Nick Novello, a Dallas police officer with 35 years of experience, said. “Enforcing unpopular and unreasonable laws creates unnecessary hostility between law enforcement and the people in our communities.”
The hearing on HB 334 lasted roughly two hours and gave Moody and company a chance to once again highlight the benefits they say will be derived if and when the legislation ever actually passes. (Only real politicians know how to take something like a hearing and a lack of any real progress and turn it into a celebration of some sort of victorious step forward.)
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“This week’s hearing on drug enforcement reform is another step in the ongoing effort to right-size our drug penalties and be smarter on the issue,” said Moody. “It’s something we’ve been working on and will continue to work on through the interim, into the next session, and beyond for as long as it takes. I know we can do better, and I’ll keep fighting for that.”
Even though the efforts to change marijuana law in Texas stalled during the regular legislative session, and didn't have chance during Governor Greg Abbott's special session, since there was no way Abbott was ever going to make weed law one of his listed legislative priorities, the whole episode was still celebrated as a sign of inevitable victory, somehow.
But not everyone was thrilled with how weed reform can't seem to get across the finish line in Texas.
“Marijuana policy reform is coming to Texas sooner rather than later,” said Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “There is no reason to let this year’s session end without voting on this bill. Waiting until 2019 will only result in wasted law enforcement resources and tens of thousands of Texans being saddled with a criminal record for using a substance that is safer than alcohol.”