A bill that effectively decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana was approved on Monday by the Texas House of Representatives. Under the measure, House Bill 63, a fine of up to $500 would be imposed for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis, rather than jail time. HB 63 was passed by the House with a vote of 98-43 and must be approved by the body with a second vote, a step usually viewed as a formality, before heading to the state Senate.
The bill changes possession of up to one ounce of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor. An earlier version of the bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Joe Moody would have classified possessing small amounts of cannabis as a civil infraction, but Moody amended the measure on the House floor to achieve more support.
“I’m not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect. If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do,” Moody said. “We can’t keep hauling 75,000 Texans to jail every year.”
Moody responded to criticism that the bill had been “watered down” by telling his colleagues in the House that he feared that a bill that completely decriminalized pot would not succeed.
“When I first proposed changing our criminal penalty for personal use of marijuana to a civil penalty, there was some support and even more caution,” he said.
Moody challenged legislators who planned to vote against the bill because they feared relaxing marijuana laws will eventually lead to the legalization of recreational pot.
“We can’t legislate in fear of what some future legislators might do,” said Moody. “We’re here to solve the problems of today. It’s not about whether marijuana is good or bad; it’s about whether what we’re doing on enforcement right now is good policy, and we all know it’s not.”
No More Arrests for Weed
Those caught possessing less than one ounce of cannabis in Texas would no longer be subject to arrest under the revised version of HB 63. Offenders would instead be placed on deferred adjudication probation. Those who successfully complete their probation and do not commit more than one offense in a calendar year would have their records expunged. Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would also no longer be grounds for the suspension of an offender’s drivers license under the measure.
Karen O’Keefe, the director of state policies for cannabis reform advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, applauded the approval of the bill in the House.
“This is an incredibly important step forward for Texas, and it is long overdue,” O’Keefe said. “HB 63 would save thousands of Texans from life-altering and traumatic arrests and incarceration, while freeing up police resources to focus on crimes that have victims. It deserves swift passage in the Senate.”
Will the Bill Become Law?
Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is opposed to broad cannabis legalization efforts, he indicated in a campaign debate while running for reelection last year that he would support legislation to reduce the penalties for small amounts of marijuana.
“One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” Abbot said. “I would be open to talking to the legislature about reducing the penalty for possession of two ounces or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor.”
But before a bill can get to Abbott’s desk, it must be approved by the Texas Senate, where success is nowhere near certain. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who controls the work of the Senate, is opposed to any measure that lessens the prohibitions on pot. Alejandro Garcia, a spokesman for the lieutenant governor, said previously that Patrick is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”