Texas House Passes Bill to Reduce Penalties for Possessing Small Amounts of Marijuana

AUSTIN -- The Texas House on Monday gave initial approval to a bill that would reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso who authored the bill, said it was a bipartisan effort to remove collateral consequences that exist under the current criminal justice system for those who are arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. He acknowledged that the bill had to be re-written before it was voted on in the House in order to remove opposition of major players in state politics, including Gov. Greg Abbott. "Although this compromise isn’t as far as I would like to go, I'm not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect," Moody said. "If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do."Unlike Moody's original bill, the version that received initial approval from the House by a vote of 98-43 would not fully decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of removing them altogether, the bill that received approval will lessen penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, while making it easier to avoid a criminal record.Essentially, marijuana possession would remain a crime but with less severe consequences. The bill must still be approved one more time by the House before moving to the Senate, where its passage may be more politically difficult. Under current law, getting caught with an ounce or less of marijuana could be punished by up to 180 days in jail with up to $2,000 in fines. Moody's amended bill would lessen that penalty to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed $500 and no jail time. Usually anyone convicted of a Class C offense would have a criminal record, but Moody's bill would make it easier to expunge these records and would bar police from arresting anyone caught with small amounts of pot.If someone caught for possession of small amounts of marijuana had not been arrested for that offense within the calendar year, a court would defer adjudication of guilt and place that person on probation.An offender's record would not be automatically expunged as Moody had earlier proposed, but it would require authorities to notify a person that their record could be expunged.Moody's bill would also aim to do away with the automatic six-month driver's license suspension that comes with any drug conviction. But that would depend on the passage of another piece of legislation that is being offered by Rep. James White. If White's legislation is not passed, that part of Moody's bill would not go into effect.Moody said some people were confused about what his bill does and emphasized that it did not deal with legalizing marijuana. "This bill is not that," he said.He said it was meant to address the $734 million a year the state spends on enforcing these laws and the 75,000 arrests made for marijuana possession that could be used to chase after more serious crimes. Still, some lawmakers like Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, took issue with Moody's bill saying if a person had enough money, they could smoke all the marijuana they wanted to because they would simply pay a fine."If you vote for this, you’re voting to legalize marijuana," he said. After the bill's passage, Moody said the bill does not legalize marijuana and that Bell's claim was a "blatant falsehood.""This isn’t about whether marijuana is good or bad, it’s about whether what we’re doing on enforcement is good policy," Moody said. "We all know it’s not. The time for reform is now."  Continue reading...

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