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Legislative Effort Aims To Reduce The State Penalty For Marijuana Possession

Ryan Poppe
Texas Public Radio

Updated on March 7, 2019.

Texas leads the nation in arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana. According to the most recent statistics available, there were 60,000 arrests in 2016 over possession of less than an ounce of the drug.

California, New York and Florida — states with populations similar to Texas — averaged 16,000 arrests or less. In recent years those states passed legislation decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. A legislative effort at the State Capitol aims to do the same in Texas.

State Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, is the author of House Bill 63, which aims to decrease the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor with possible arrest and jail time to a civil fine of $250. The individual could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor if caught three times, but still would not face any jail time.

“About half of those result in a conviction or a non-expugnable probation, which is a barrier to education, financial aid, housing, military service and employment,” Moody said. “And if someone overcomes all of that, then not having a driver’s license can also stand in the way of productivity since an automatic suspension comes with a conviction.”

It’s an experience Austin resident Lori Zapinski knows all too well. Zapinski was arrested for possession of marijuana in 2004 in Houston. It’s an arrest that hangs over her every time she applies for a job.

“Anytime anyone wants to do a background check on me, we have to have a conversation. And you know, I’m a grandma now, my kids are all grown up, but it’s still a conversation we have to have. It’s not great, it’s not comfortable,” Zapinski said.

That’s a conversations with prospective employers that Karen Reeves’ son, Alex, will likely have too. Reeves son was arrested in 2015 after police found marijuana in a car that was giving him a ride home. Alex was on leave after completing his military training as a Marine.

“Within a mile from our house, they were pulled over,” his mother said. “And the guy he got a ride from was dealing marijuana and had a felony amount of it in his car. So my son actually lost his title as a Marine,” she said.

Reeves and Zapinski were among those who testified in favor of the bill this week before the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.

But some law enforcement groups fear the decrease in criminal penalties could result in a uptick in the number of people using marijuana, especially among Texas teenagers.

Credit Ryan Poppe / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
State Rep. Joe Moody laying out House Bill 63 in the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.

Terrance Holloway, who spoke against the bill, is with the Plano Police Department.

“I feel at 14, 15, 16 years old, they are going to feel it’s carte blanche to smoke marijuana every day,” Holloway said.

It’s an issue that Moody said the bill addresses, calling it delinquent conduct under the state’s Family Code of Conduct.

Others, like Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, said the bill cuts into law enforcement’s discretion to determine when it’s appropriate to arrest someone for marijuana possession or simply issue a citation.

“Several counties do that, you know, write citations for marijuana usage and marijuana possession. That’s something each agency can consider for adoption,” Louderback said.

Louderback said Texas counties like Hays, Travis, Harris and Bexar already have programs where officers have the option of issuing a citation and releasing that person for smaller amounts of marijuana possession.

But Moody said even with local changes, a person arrested for possession of marijuana under a Class B misdemeanor results in a criminal record and still places a strain on local law enforcement.

“You know, a big part of the conversation this session is about local taxes and how we cap local taxes. Well, the funds that we spend to handle this, these are local taxes. I’ve yet to hear a local sheriff tell me their jail is under-crowded,” Moody said.

Moody first filed the bill in 2015 and received enough support during the 2017 session to make it out of the Texas House, but ultimately it ran out of time in the final hours of the session.

The bill itself was one of the policy issues discussed during 2018’s midterm election and one that has Gov. Greg Abbott’s blessing.

“I would be open to talking to the legislature about … reducing the penalty for possession or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor,” Abbott said.

But in order for Moody to get that blessing in writing, he will need to secure enough support for the bill’s passage in both the House and Senate before the bill makes to Abbott’s desk and can signed into law.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story explained that HB 63 reduces the penalty for small-level marijuana possession "from a Class B misdemeanor with possible arrest and jail time to a Class C misdemeanor that comes with a $250 fine and no criminal record." The legislation actually reduces the penalty from a Class B misdemeanor to a civil fine of $250. After that, the individual could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor if caught three times, but still would not face any jail time.

Ryan Poppe can be reached at RPoppe@TPR.org and on Twitter at @RyanPoppe1.