Thursday saw a coalition of police officers and judges head to the Texas State Capitol in support of House Bill 81, which would would remove the threat of arrest, jail time, and a criminal record for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of up to $250.
Currently in Texas, individuals found in possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana can be arrested and given a criminal record, and they face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
Joining the officers today was retired Texas District Court Judge John Delaney.
“Every year we arrest about 60,000 people in Texas for possession of tiny amounts of marijuana,” Delaney said. “Each arrest takes about two hours of police time, not to mention the added burden on jails and courts. This diverts resources that could be spent helping victims of violence and serious property crimes.”
Delaney went on to note that issuing citations makes more sense due to the long term repercussions faced by those found guilty of simple possession.
“What’s more, a marijuana conviction affects a person’s ability to work and support a family for the rest of their life,” he said. “No one wins; all of us lose.”
Both active duty and retired officers joined House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, at today’s press conference to express support for HB 81. Their concerns on the current state of marijuana law in Texas mirrored those of Judge Delaney.
“Arresting people for marijuana possession takes officers off the streets for hours, reducing their effectiveness,” said former Carrollton police officer Silvestre Tanenbaum. “In this time of shrinking law enforcement budgets and staffing reductions, officers need to be able to maximize their impact in our communities.”
Tanenbaum pointed to the positives of Moody’s bill.
“Issuing citations for low-level marijuana possession can drastically reduce the manpower expense and court costs that go into prosecuting what is essentially a victimless offense,” he said. “It would also enable law enforcement to build better relationships with the community it serves.”
Rep. Moody noted Texans want police on the streets protecting and serving, offenders punished sternly but fairly, and taxpayer money spent efficiently and effectively.
“House Bill 81 does that by making personal-use possession of marijuana a civil violation instead of a crime,” said Moody. “That frees up law enforcement resources and deals with marijuana possession firmly without branding a college kid caught with a joint as a criminal who will then have real problems getting financial aid to finish school and finding a place to live and work afterwards.”
Heather Fazio, Texas Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, felt it was a great day for reformers in the Lone Star State.
“Chairman Moody was supported by several members of the law enforcement community who also visited with legislative offices to discuss HB 81,” she said. “Too often legislators only hear from prohibitionist law enforcement officers. Today they heard from folks who have experience in the criminal justice system and have seen how our failing policies are wasting resources and making our communities less safe.”
Fazio said supporters are looking forward to a hearing and committee vote in early March. Then the bill advances to the Texas House for debate and a vote.
More than two-thirds of Texans (68 percent) would support reducing the penalty for low-level marijuana possession to a citation and $250 fine, according to a June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Only 26 percent said they would be opposed.
Also at the Texas State Capital, the efforts of State Senator José Menéndez to expands Texas’s medical marijuana program via Senate Bill 269 continue. In December he told supporters, “it’s exclusive to intractable epilepsy and compassion should never be exclusive. If it’s good for intractable epilepsy, why can’t we allow patients with cancer, PTSD, MS, Parkinson’s and other things that could benefit?”
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