Texas Legislators Push Pot Decriminalization Bills for 2017

By Paul Gaita 11/23/16

Texas may soon be following the lead of states like California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine.

Texas Legislators Push Pot Decriminalization Bills for 2017

When Texas lawmakers return to Austin for the start of the 2017 legislative session, they will be required to review a number of proposed bills that seek to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

The proposals also address a wide array of related legal matters, including the creation of a specialty court for certain first-time offenders—in an attempt to reduce the vast number of individuals behind bars for minor possession charges (97% of all marijuana-related convictions, according to 2015 figures) as well as the tax dollars required to keep them incarcerated.

"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," said state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs), who publicly pledged to work to pass a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Among the bills on the state legislature's docket in January are:

  • House Bill 81, authored by Rep. Joseph "Joe" Moody (D-El Paso), which hopes to replace criminal penalties, including arrest and possible jail time, for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250. This is Moody's second attempt to put forward such a bill. His previous effort, HB 507, did not pass during the 2015 legislature.
  • House Bill 82, authored by Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. (D-Houston), which aims to re-classify a conviction for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a Class C misdemeanor. Should an individual be convicted for possession three times, the conviction would revert back to a Class B misdemeanor.
  • House Bill 58, from Rep. James White (R-Woodville), seeks to create a specialty court for first-time possession offenders that hopes to reduce law enforcement, corrections and court resources spent on such charges.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 17, Senate Joint Resolution 18 and Senate Bill 170 all authored by state Senator Jose Rodriguez. The joint resolutions would allow voters to decide if marijuana—both for recreational and medical purposes—should be legalized in Texas, while the Senate Bill would change charges for possession of one ounce or less from a criminal offense to a civil one.

A major roadblock for all of these measures is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who turned down legalization efforts in 2015 and reiterated his opposition to such measures this month.

However, Abbott did sign into law Senate Bill 339, which legalized cannabidiol (CBD) oils—a non-psychoactive concentrate—as a treatment for epilepsy and other chronic ailments.

If any of these current bills pass, Texas would join the growing list of states, districts and territories with medical marijuana programs, as well as the four newly minted states (California, Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts) that approved recreational marijuana use in the Nov. 8 election.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.