By Alex Samuels
Less than a week after several other states approved measures weakening marijuana restrictions, some Texas lawmakers are looking to do the same.
On Monday, the first day of bill filing for the 2017 legislative session, Lone Star State legislators submitted several proposals to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Among the bills are those that would create a specialty court for certain first-time marijuana possession offenders, reduce criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and re-classify convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
On Nov. 8, voters in California, Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts approved recreational marijuana initiatives, adding them to a growing list of states — including Colorado and Washington — that have already approved the drug for recreational use. Voters in Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas also approved medicinal marijuana initiatives. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 28 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs.
In 2015, Texas lawmakers proposed a number of unsuccessful bills to decriminalize marijuana, including one by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, that would have legalized possessing or using marijuana.
In March 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a press conference that lawmakers would not approve legislation that would legalize marijuana. However, Abbott’s office did not respond to an immediate request for comment Monday on his thoughts on the outlook for such legislation in 2017.
Despite reservations from Texas lawmakers regarding legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use, one bill gained traction and was signed into law by Abbott last year. Authored by Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, Senate Bill 339 — the “Compassionate Use Act” — legalized oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions.
And Texas lawmakers across the state say they want leniency in how the state prosecutes marijuana crimes. In an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith Monday, State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said he thinks the Legislature could decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana next year, especially after several states did so on Election Day.
“We’re spending our tax dollars on incarcerating [people that don’t deserve to be incarcerated] because they got caught with a small amount of marijuana,” said Isaac, whose district encompasses Texas State University. “These are people that we probably subsidize their public education, we probably subsidize where they went to a state school, and now they’re branded as a criminal when they go to do a background check.”
Isaac added that last session he was approached by state Rep. Joseph "Joe" Moody, D-El Paso, who asked Isaac to sign on to a decriminalization bill but didn’t because he “didn’t feel like it was the time.” During the interview Monday, however, Isaac said “it is the time now” and publicly pledged to sign on and work to get a bill passed that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
Among the Texas proposals that have been filed thus far:
House Bill 58 by state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, would create a specialty court for certain first-time marijuana possession offenders based on the principle that first-time defendants are often self-correcting. The measure is intended to conserve law enforcement and corrections resources, White said in a news release.
State Rep. Joseph "Joe" Moody, D-El Paso, filed House Bill 81, which aims to replace criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250. The bill also allows Texans to avoid arrest and possible jail time for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Moody authored a similar bill during the previous legislative session; it did not pass.
State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, filed House Bill 82, which aims to classify a conviction for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a Class C misdemeanor instead of Class B. However, if a person is convicted three times, it would revert back to a Class B misdemeanor. Dutton co-authored a similar bill last session with Moody.
State Sen. José Rodríguez filed Senate Joint Resolution 17, which would allow voters to decide whether marijuana should be legalized in Texas, following the pattern of a number of states.
Senate Joint Resolution 18, also authored by Rodríguez, would allow voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana for medical use if recommended by a health care provider. "It is long past time we allow the people to decide," Rodríguez said in a statement.
Rodríguez also filed Senate Bill 170, which would change possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil one.