State Rep Harold Dutton Again Looks to Soften Jail-Cramming Marijuana Penalties

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Rep. Harold Dutton's efforts to minimize the criminal penalties on the possession of the smallest amount of marijuana got a mixed reception in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

Dutton, D-Houston, is ever the logical one when it comes to challenging excessive, frivolous or ridiculous criminal penalties, even in Republican-dominated law-and-order Texas. And he's filed the ganja bill, in various forms, multiple times.

"Let me start by saying, simply, in Texas, possession of any amount of marijuana is against the law, no matter how small, no matter how large," Dutton said. "That's the current Texas law, that it's against the law, and that's not going to change."

What Dutton does want to change is the penalty for the possession of an ounce of pot or less -- that roach in your car's ashtray when you're pulled over for a traffic stop. Right now it's a Class B misdemeanor, and Dutton wants to downgrade it to Class C. That would make it somewhat in line with a charge of public intoxication, and it would mean that most who are arrested won't be looking at jail time.

Dutton doesn't see it as evading a pot conviction; he sees it as stopping a cycle of problems that start with pot possession and end with probation violations, jail time and even the inability to eventually land a job.

Of the 70,000 cases filed on marijuana possession each year in Texas, about 30,000 encompass the possession of two ounces or less, Dutton said. That's not broken down to an ounce, he noted, but figures do point out those who are arrested for smaller amounts of pot are typically first-time offenders between 17 and 25.

Dutton heard both positive and negative feedback. Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, wanted to bracket the bill to those under 21. Dutton demurred. Schaefer suggested such a tough sell might require baby steps. Dutton, who has been down this road before, politely noted it was Schaefer's first session.

Criminal prosecutor Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, on the other hand, offered enthusiastic support for the bill. He noted counties were losing money hand over fist because of the numerous steps in the process: booking; bail; and even housing offenders for weeks at a time because they can't meet bail and the court system is slow.

House Bill 192 remains pending in committee.

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