On Monday, Texas House lawmakers accomplished an historic first for the state. They voted to approve a partial decriminalization bill that would have reduced penalties for the possession of small quantities of cannabis. But as soon as the House sent the measure to the Senate, Lt. Gov. of Texas and Senate President Dan Patrick declared the bill dead. Patrick’s comments came on the heels of a similar statement from Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire, who told reporters there wasn’t “an appetite” for marijuana reform in the upper chamber. Advocates of the decriminalization measure had already compromised on the bill to get it through the House. And in the wake of Patrick’s declaration, they’re vowing to find common ground with Senate opposition.
Watered-Down Decriminalization Bill Still Too Extreme for Texas Senators
House Bill 63 is sponsored by Texas state Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), a lawmaker who has been trying for years to ease Texas’ harsh criminalization of cannabis. This time around, Moody succeeded in getting his bill through the conservative Texas House by proposing a watered-down version of his original decriminalization bill.
Initially, Rep. Moody proposed replacing criminal penalties for minor cannabis possession entirely. House Bill 63, in its original version, would have replaced criminal charges for anyone caught possessing up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of $250. Only persons who received three such “weed tickets” would face misdemeanor criminal charges.
On Monday, however, Moody watered down his own bill, transforming it from a full to a partial decriminalization measure. Instead of civil penalties and fines, the revised version of HB 63 would simply reduce possession of less than an ounce from a Class B to Class C misdemeanor. Possession between one ounce and two ounces would still be a Class B misdemeanor, carrying jail time, a $2,000 fine or both.
But while the revised version of Rep. Moody’s decriminalization bill won favor among House lawmakers, passing with a 103-42 vote, it was still too extreme for opponents of marijuana reform in the Senate. “I try not to bring issues that are going to be time-consuming if they’re not going to get support, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) told The Texas Observer.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Opposes Partial Decrim ss Step Toward “Colorado-Style” Legalization
In his declaration that House Bill 63 was dead-on-arrival in the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. and Senate President Dan Patrick echeoed Sen. Whitmire’s statement. “Criminal Justice Chair @Whitmire_Jhn is right that #HB 63 is dead in the @Texas Senate,” Patrick tweeted early Tuesday.
“I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana,” Lt. Gov. Patrick’s tweet added.
Lt. Gov. Patrick has a long record of speaking out against bills aimed at loosening Texas’ marijuana laws. He has repeatedly condemned such efforts as “vehicles for expanding access to this drug,” according to a previous statement.
Rep. Moody blasted Patrick’s remarks before his House colleagues Tuesday. “Whatever you think about Colorado-style legalization, this isn’t it. It isn’t even a step toward it,” Moody said.
In Texas, anyone caught with an ounce or less of cannabis can face up to 180 days in jail and up to $2,000 in fines. In 2017 alone, Texas law enforcement arrested more than 60,000 people for simple marijuana possession. Those 60,000 arrests make up more than half of the state’s total drug possession arrests. And as is the case around the country, those figures are marred by extreme racial disparities, with black and Latinx people facing disproportionate arrest rates compared with white people.
Advocates Will Continue Push for Marijuana Reform in Texas
Rep. Moody’s bill was a criminal justice reform bill, not a “step-toward-legalization” bill as detractors claim. If reduced to a Class C misdemeanor, possession up to an ounce would only cary a maximum $5000 fine, no jail time and the possibility for criminal record expungement.
Advocates of drug policy reform, along with Rep. Moody, have vowed to continue the fight. “Dan Patrick is the odd man out here and the ball is in his court,” Moody told his House colleagues.
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy and supporter of Rep. Moody’s bill, acknowledged that working through the legislative process would be difficult, but not impossible. A compromise found common ground among a majority of House lawmakers, and Fazio said the same can happen in the Senate. “We intend to bring that spirit to the Texas Senate,” Fazio said.