Last week, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee voted 9-0 to pass a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of cannabis. This was the first hearing for House Bill 218, which is sponsored by Rep. Joseph Moody (who is also chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee) as well as Rep. Harold Dutton, Rep. Charlie Geren, Rep. Rafael Anchia, and Rep. Briscoe Cain.
“I’ve been on a journey with this one. The essence of this bill is really simple even though the language may be a little bit confusing,” Moody said at the hearing on March 7, according to the Dallas Observer. “There are tens of thousands of arrests for personal use possession in Texas annually and those cost our state hundreds of millions of dollars every single year, not to mention countless hours of law enforcement and prosecutor time. They also tag people, mostly young people, with criminal records that create life-long obstacles to jobs, education, housing and other opportunities. That’s an awful investment and an awful outcome any way you slice it.”
If passed into law, HB-281 would lessen penalties for cannabis possession. According to the bill text, a Class C misdemeanor applies to possession of one ounce or less (and wouldn’t lead to arrest), a Class B misdemeanor applies to possession of two ounces or less, but more than one ounce, and a Class A misdemeanor covers the possession of four ounces of cannabis, but more than one ounce. Moody explains that these changes will help prevent people from getting arrested for small amounts of cannabis. “House Bill 218 changes that system to right-size the penalty,” he said.
Additionally, an individual convicted of one of these misdemeanors will be required to be placed on deferred adjudication community supervision. After completing the requirements of that, their record can be expunged of the conviction.
“Basically, the person [who] is given a ticket goes to court, they’re assessed a fine, then the court tells them, ‘You’ve got six months to pay and you need to stay out of trouble during that time,’” Moody explained. “If the person does their part, the court dismisses the charges, and on a request of the individual, deletes the entire record of it.”
“The person walks away lighter in the wallet, but without any criminal record whatsoever,” Moody continued. “The only difference between this and previous versions of this bill is that it incorporates another effort that we’ve been working on side by side to create parity between leaf cannabis and concentrates. In other words, when someone has a joint or a vape pen we’re going to treat them the same, which isn’t the case under the current law.”
Advocates are optimistic that the bill will continue to progress, but it still needs to be scheduled for a hearing in the full Texas House of Representatives, followed by the Senate. Previously, similar bills such as HB-63 in 2019 and HB-441 in 2021 passed in the House but were not passed in the Senate.
There’s a lot of hope for Texas on the cannabis front. A 2022 summertime poll showed that 55% Texans support cannabis legalization, and 72% support medical cannabis. Last November, residents in five Texas cities, including Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin, and Harker Heights, voted to approve decriminalization efforts. Recently in January, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced that it is taking applications to possibly expand the number of medical cannabis dispensaries in the state. Only three medical cannabis dispensaries have been licensed over the past three years.
At the end of February, there were reports of law enforcement officers ignoring a cannabis decriminalization ordinance in the city of Denton.