Police chiefs from Plano, North Richland Hills and Grand Prairie told a Texas House committee on Monday that marijuana is a dangerous gateway drug that leads to violent crime. In the same hearing, David Sloane, a 60-year-old criminal defense attorney from Fort Worth, said it was with shame that he’d arrested people for marijuana possession during his tenure as a law enforcement officer decades ago.
Those arrests were “low-hanging fruit” that he wasn’t proud of, said Sloane, who was a lieutenant at the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.
“I didn’t see the harm these people had committed to society,” Sloane told the members of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. “My practice is over 90 percent defense of cannabis cases. It’s insane for me to come in here asking for you to reduce the penalties on this. It’s going to put me out of business, but you know what? It’s the right thing to do.”
Sloane was one of more than a dozen witnesses who testified in favor of House Bill 63, filed by state Representative Joe Moody, D-El Paso, during a hearing at the Capitol on Monday. The proposal — the first marijuana reform measure heard in committee this session — would downgrade possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to six months in jail, to a civil offense with a fine of up to $250. Violators would no longer incur a criminal record. The nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board estimates the legislation would save the state $2.6 million per year.
This is Moody’s third session filing the legislation, which passed out of committee the previous two sessions but did not make it to a House floor vote — an important step that prompts debate among lawmakers, forces all to register a position and reveals which lawmakers activists still haven’t convinced. HB 63 was left pending on Monday, as were the other seven bills discussed, but Moody said he expects it to pass the first legislative hurdle soon. One possible advantage: This session is his first as vice chair of the powerful House Calendars committee, which sets the agenda for the full House.
For civil rights advocates, the change can’t come soon enough. More than 64,000 people in Texas were arrested for marijuana possession in 2017, constituting half of the drug possession arrests that year, according to Department of Public Safety data. Though black and white people use marijuana at about the same rates, black people are more than twice as likely to be arrested for pot possession in Texas, according to the ACLU. Low-level drug offenses can also lead to driver’s license suspensions, potential loss of student financial aid and greater difficulty in finding jobs and housing.
“The sanctions that hit you with that offense, they’re not right-sized,” said Moody, a member of the jurisprudence committee, in an interview last week. “They certainly go far and above the gravity of the crime alleged.”
But a handful of law enforcement leaders who testified against decriminalization at the hearing see it differently. The conservative Sheriffs’ Association of Texas will oppose any efforts to legalize, decriminalize or increase access to medical marijuana, The Appeal reported. The association has blasted marijuana as a gateway drug and a threat to public safety, even though studies show that most people who use marijuana do not go on to use other illegal drugs, and alcohol causes more brain damage.
Across the country, states are rapidly moving ahead with softening or nixing penalties and increasing access to medical marijuana. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use.
A “cite and release” law passed by the Legislature in 2007 lets local law enforcement agencies choose whether to arrest people for misdemeanors like marijuana possession, an approach that has been adopted in most of the state’s urban areas. But racial and geographic disparities still persist under the patchwork policy, and Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said the law has created inconsistent consequences around the state.
“This will help to protect those in other areas of the state and ensure that people’s lives aren’t being ruined for the simple possession of marijuana,” Fazio said.
Last session, the same bill passed through the House committee with the approval of two Republicans: state Representatives Terry Wilson, of Marble Falls, and Todd Hunter, of Corpus Christi. Hunter is serving on the committee again this session.
But Moody was able to secure that bipartisan vote only after he offered an amended version that allows for charging an individual who has been cited three times for marijuana possession with a Class C misdemeanor, which does not carry jail time but is a criminal offense. Moody retained that provision when he filed the bill this session, hoping to win bipartisan support. The committee consists of four Democrats and five Republicans.
Moody has already courted support for HB 63 from five House Republicans: Hunter; James White, of Hillister; Dade Phelan, of Beaumont; Rick Miller, of Sugar Land; and Briscoe Cain, of Deer Park, a member of the hardline Freedom Caucus. But even if the bill makes the uphill climb to pass the House and Senate, it would still need the blessing of Governor Greg Abbott. In a September 2018 debate, Abbott said he is open to reducing possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C. It’s not quite the same as supporting a civil penalty, Moody said, but it’s a start.
“He did certainly state that his ultimate goal was to have fewer young people locked up for this stuff, so if that’s your goal, the most efficient way to achieve that goal is to enact a bill like House Bill 63,” Moody said. “Whether that comes with his vocal support for it or not, I don’t know, but it certainly sounds like, philosophically, he could get there.”
Doug Smith, senior policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said he hopes the bill passes, but the Legislature should go further. “I’m not entirely sure that leadership is completely sold on that, but the community is,” Smith said, referring to polling that shows almost two-thirds of Texans support legalizing recreational marijuana. “This is really demonstrative of how out of step policymakers are with general public attitudes.”