Marijuana Decriminalization Effort Growing in the House, But Democrats Need GOP Help

Now a committee chairman, Democrat Joe Moody is leading the charge, but is his plan for pot policy reform just a pipe dream?

Marijuana Decriminalization Effort Growing in the House, But Democrats Need GOP Help

Now a committee chairman, Democrat Joe Moody is leading the charge, but is his plan for pot policy reform just a pipe dream?

For the past few years, efforts to decriminalize marijuana have smoldered in the Capitol only to burn out at the end of each session. Conditions might be ripe for them to catch fire in the House this year, even though they’ll likely be snuffed out in the Senate.

“The conversation is getting louder on this side of the building,” state Representative Joe Moody, D-El Paso, told the Observer. “This is an issue that has bipartisan support among the people we represent. Unfortunately, it’s the lawmakers who are last across the finish line on this.”

State Representative Joe Moody, D-El Paso (right)  Sam DeGrave

Moody, the new chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, wants to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a fine-only offense. Under Moody’s House Bill 81, anyone busted with an ounce of marijuana or less would be subject to a civil citation — similar to a parking ticket — and a fine of up to $250. No arrest, no jail time, no criminal record.

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Under current law, a conviction for possession of 2 ounces of marijuana or less — a Class B misdemeanor — can land you in jail for up to six months and a carry a fine up to $2,000. In 2015, more than 61,000 people were arrested in Texas for possession of marijuana, according to Department of Public Safety data.

Getting caught with a joint is the first step down the long road to “life-altering poverty,” said retired Texas District Court Judge John Delaney at a pro-decriminalization press conference last week.

“That conviction stamps them with a tattoo right on their forehead for the rest of their life, and it begins when they get that letter … saying their license has been suspended,” he said. In Texas, drug convictions result in a driver’s license suspension of six months.

Last session, two pot-related proposals — a nearly identical decriminalization bill from Moody, HB 507, and a full legalization measure from former Longview Republican Representative David Simpson — made it further in the legislative process than ever before. The two bills were voted out of committee but never considered by the full House, largely because they advanced too late in the session, Moody said.

But “a lot of things are potentially different this session,” said Ellic Sahualla, Moody’s chief of staff.

About 350 marijuana policy reform advocates gather at the Capitol.  Sam DeGrave

As chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Moody has control over when bills are heard. Though he wouldn’t give an exact date for a hearing on HB 81, Moody said he’s not going to waste any time moving it through the process.

“This committee is much bigger than just my bill,” he told the Observer. “But this is a discussion that needs to happen in Texas, and I plan on having that discussion.”

It’s going to take more than a healthy head-start for Moody’s bill to have a chance at becoming law. It won’t clear his own committee, which comprises three Democrats and four Republicans, unless he can persuade at least one GOP member to approve the measure. The other two Democrats — Terry Canales of Edinburg and Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio — have signed onto HB 81 as co-authors.

“This doesn’t go anywhere without bipartisan support,” Moody said.

All four of the committee’s Republican members refused to take a stance on Moody’s bill and marijuana decriminalization generally when pressed by the Observer last week.

During his campaign last year, Representative Mike Lang, a Granbury Republican and newcomer to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, told the Mineral Wells Index that he was “opposed to any form of marijuana legalization.”

“As a law enforcement officer, I have seen firsthand how drugs can ruin lives,” he told the newspaper. “As a state, we must not do anything to encourage recreational drug use.”

But when it comes to HB 81, the nearly 30-year veteran of law enforcement told the Observer that “it’s still a little early” to say how he might vote.

Republicans Cole Hefner and Terry Wilson haven’t made public their stances on marijuana policy reform in the past.

But Representative Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican, could be an important ally for Moody this session. Hunter, a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus and vice-chair of the committee, registered a preliminary vote in support of the similar measure last session, but he was absent the day the bill won committee approval. In addition, he chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, which controls the flow of legislation to the House chamber.

“I don’t have a set position, but I do this every session. I wait for the bills to develop, and as we get closer, I start to make my decision,” Hunter said in an interview with the Observer.

The way Hunter sees it, marijuana decriminalization isn’t “one aisle versus the other.” He said both liberal and conservative constituents have approached him, speaking in support of decriminalization.

That wouldn’t come as a shock to Texas pollsters. In September 2015, the Texas Lyceum reported that the majority of Texans support reducing the penalties for marijuana possession. Of those polled, 60 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans favored decriminalization. A similar poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that 79 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans support making marijuana offenses a civil penalty rather than a criminal charge.

A pot policy reform advocate prepares to meet his representative at the Capitol.  Sam DeGrave

When it comes to drug policy reform, the Texas Legislature lags significantly behind much of the nation. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and local officials in some part of Texas are starting to take the cue.

Starting March 1, law enforcement officers in Houston and Harris County won’t arrest people possessing less than 4 ounces of marijuana so long as they agree to take a drug education course, the Houston Chronicle reported. New Harris County DA Kim Ogg announced the policy late last week alongside Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, the police chief and the county sheriff.

State Senator José Rodríguez, a Democrat representing El Paso, is carrying an identical measure to Moody’s on the other side of the Capitol. Both lawmakers can identify with Ogg. Before they were state legislators, they worked as attorneys for El Paso County, Moody as a prosecutor and Rodríguez as county attorney. It was there, they said, that they became familiar with the problems that come with marijuana convictions.

Rodríguez doesn’t think the odds of his bill clearing the Senate Criminal Justice Committee are good, given that Republicans outnumber Democrats on the committee six to three.

Last session, Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis carried the Senate companion to Moody’s decriminalization measure. It never got a hearing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which had three Democrats and only four Republicans at the time.

“I’m realistic about this. The leadership is not supportive,” Rodríguez told the Observer, noting that Governor Greg Abbott has said he won’t sign any bill legalizing recreational marijuana. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment regarding decriminalization.

Abbott isn’t alone in his reticence. Texas Republicans often struggle with the issue of marijuana policy reform because it puts their liberty-loving, limited-government nature at odds with socially conservative voters. Some Democrats even have a hard time with the issue.

That’s why Rodríguez has also proposed a constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 17, that would legalize the possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana. He knows it doesn’t have a chance of passing, but he sees his proposed amendment and all other bill loosening marijuana laws as “vehicles for having an important debate.”

Forcing opponents of marijuana policy reform into open discussion is the first step in relaxing drug laws, according to Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

“It is really hard to defend the status quo and defend current policies when you sit down and talk about it,” she told the Observer. “The way reform has been stalled so long is that politicians have refused to have the conversation.”

Sam DeGrave is a legislative fellow based out of Austin. Before moving to Texas, he worked as a reporter in Juneau, Alaska.

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