Texas lawmakers heard over two hours of testimony on a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana on Monday.
Just before the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee’s hearing on the legislation began, four committee chairs announced they were signing on as cosponsors of the proposal.
— Alexandra Samuels (@AlexSamuelsx5) March 4, 2019
House Bill 63, introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D) of El Paso, would set civil instead of criminal penalties for people found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The violation would carry a $250 fine that could be increased to a misdemeanor charge after three repeat violations.
Currently in Texas, individuals found in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can face misdemeanor charges that could result in 180 days in jail or fines up to $2,000.
“I want to make very clear that HB 63 isn’t legalization or medical expansion,” Moody told the committee. “It’s an enforcement alternative, which is to keep marijuana illegal but enforce those laws with a civil penalty instead of a criminal one.”
Getting ready to layout #HB63 in committee. Proud to have strong bipartisan support behind this bill that would create a civil penalty for low grade possession of marijuana. Ready for the work ahead to get this passed! #txlege Watch here https://t.co/t079fXDyCg CC: @TxMJPolicy
— Joe Moody (@moodyforelpaso) March 4, 2019
At the hearing, lawmakers heard from members of law enforcement and the criminal justice system that both support and oppose decriminalizing marijuana.
Nueces County district attorney Mark Gonzalez made the drive to Austin to testify for the bill, even though he was scheduled to lead a capital murder case in Corpus Christi the next day. In addition to supporting HB 63, Gonzalez talked about the diversion program his county and others are implementing to keep low-level drug offenders out of prisons.
“We have to decide enough is enough and to be smart on crime,” he said. “The time is now.”
Senior District Judge John Delaney of Bryan, Texas pointed out in prepared testimony that the bill would reduce the number of drivers licenses that are suspended following a marijuana conviction.
“License suspensions are in some ways more onerous than jail sentences,” Delaney said. “A suspension isn’t over at the end of the suspension period. The suspension continues until the driver takes certain action to get it reinstated. He must fill out an application for reinstatement, pay a $100 fee, purchase expensive SR-22 insurance, and complete a drug education course.”
“The combined cost of these items is a serious barrier for many Texans,” he added.
Delaney said reducing penalties would also save officers’ time.
“Then there are the costs of jailing, feeding, clothing and attending to the medical needs of over 54,000 prisoners a year, plus the costs of processing these individuals through the court system, sometimes with the benefit of court-appointed lawyers,” he said.
Under Moody’s bill, people caught possessing small amounts of cannabis would have the option to take an education course or do community service if they are unable to pay the fine.
During testimony, three police chiefs from around the state testified in opposition to the bill, calling marijuana a dangerous drug and a threat to public health. All three advocated for allowing officers to exercise their own discretion in whether a person should be arrested.
Proud to be in Austin to testify against HB63. Don’t believe the myths. Marijuana is, in fact, a dangerous drug that destroys people’s lives and is detrimental to public safety in Grand Prairie and the State of Texas. @GrandPrairiePD #Texas pic.twitter.com/bObBqVZckV
— Ronnie Morris (@ChiefMorrisGPPD) March 4, 2019
According to an explanatory document circulated by the bill’s supporters, HB 63 would “promote uniformity on a statewide level. The bill would provide legislative guidance to a patchwork system of cities and counties that have attempted to address this on their own.”
“Arrests and prosecutions have little deterrent effect and haven’t caused a decline in marijuana use in Texas, but they do actually make our streets more dangerous by diverting law enforcement from more serious crimes and spurring drug-related violence,” it argues.
If the bill is enacted, marijuana found by police would still be seized and destroyed, in line with current practice.
“Driving while impaired by marijuana is still DWI,” the sponsors’ document reads. “If a marijuana user is causing problems in public, they can still be arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, or any number of things.”
John “Jay” Hall, a retired lieutenant from the Houston Police Department, submitted written testimony on the effects of cannabis prohibition, which he saw firsthand in his 30 years on the force. According to arrest reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety, marijuana accounted for half of 128,003 simple drug possession arrests in 2017.
“This bill also reflects that we are smart on crime with respect to our morality and ethics when we see the devastation that previous marijuana laws have done, especially to communities of color,” he wrote. “This bill shows that we are changing course to allow individuals the opportunity to keep their lives on track.”
Similar legislation advanced out of committee last session but did not receive a floor vote in time to advance.
The bill’s return to Austin comes in the midst of a shift in public perception regarding cannabis. A 2018 survey from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that a majority of Texans support cannabis law reform.
The Republican and Democratic parties of Texas have both adopted marijuana reform planks in their party platforms. And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’s open to reducing penalties.
David Sloane is a criminal defense attorney from Fort Worth who previously served on the police force in Tarrant County. He described the marijuana arrests he made as “like getting the low-hanging fruit.”
“That wasn’t an arrest report I put on the top of the stack for everyone to see. I stuck that underneath because I wasn’t proud of what I’d done,” he said. “I didn’t see the harm they had done to society.”
Sloane said a majority of the cases his practice now takes are for similar marijuana possession charges.
“It’s insane to have me come here and ask for lower penalties,” he said. “It’s going to put me out of business but you know what? It’s the right thing to do.”
Legalization advocates were pleased with how the hearing went.
“We’re thrilled to see such tremendous bipartisan support for House Bill 63,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “This bill represents common ground amongst Democrats and Republicans who are ready to move forward with a more reasonable approach to marijuana policy.”
Federal Financial Regulatory Agency Head Says Marijuana Banking Among Most Challenging Issues
The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.
“At a federal level it is still an illegal substance. And at many state levels, it’s now legal, and it’s legal to frankly bank it at a state level,” Chair Jelena McWilliams said. “And so banks find themselves caught between the federal regulatory regime and the state.”
While Congress continues to debate legislation to resolve the conflict, McWilliams told Crain’s Detroit that in the interim, she tells banks there’s “so much uncertainty in this space that as a federal regulator, I still have to say, it’s illegal to bank marijuana. But to the extent that you’re doing it because it’s legal in your state, please follow FinCEN guidance.”
“We know we have banks that are banking marijuana businesses, and you know, we can’t bless them and say ‘go ahead and do it,'” she added. “But to the extent you’re doing it because it’s legal in your state, follow FinCEN guidance.”
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued guidance in 2014 for financial institutions that service cannabis businesses.
Advocates have been encouraged that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act could still advance through Congress this year. The legislation, which would protest banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, cleared the House last year and now awaits action in the Senate Banking Committee.
Separately, the bill’s language was inserted into a House-passed coronavirus relief package last month. Its chief sponsor in the chamber, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), recently said he feels there’s a 50-50 chance the legislation will make it past the Senate.
Multiple Republican lawmakers criticized the inclusion of the marijuana banking language in the House package, arguing that it is not germane and is part of a Democratic wish list. However, its Senate sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), told Marijuana Moment he disagrees and feels the SAFE Banking Act should advance through the vehicle of COVID legislation.
Beyond the bipartisan support for the standalone bill in the House last year, a coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general—including seven Republicans—are urging Congress to pass the coronavirus legislation with the banking language.
Vermont Senate Votes To Double Amount Of Marijuana That Can Be Possessed And Grown Without Jail Time
The Vermont Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would double the amount of marijuana that can be possessed and grown without the threat of jail time
The legislation also contains provisions for automatic expungements that stand to clear the records for thousands of misdemeanor cannabis convictions.
While the state legalized possession of up to one ounce and cultivation of two plants in 2018, possession of a second ounce or third or fourth plant is currently considered a misdemeanor.
The expungement bill, which cleared the chamber in a voice vote, was amended to add language making it so possessing up to two ounces or growing that third or fourth plant would be treated as a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine and no jail time.
Possession of more than two ounces or four plants would be treated as a misdemeanor, and individuals convicted could go through a court diversion program.
The main component of the legislation as originally introduced, however, concerns expungements. Text of the bill states that the “court shall order the expungement of criminal history records of violations of 18 V.S.A. § 4230(a)(1) that occurred prior to July 1, 2020” and the “process for expunging these records shall be completed not later than July 1, 2021.”
“Upon entry of an expungement order, the order shall be legally effective immediately and the person whose record is expunged shall be treated in all respects as if he or she had never been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for the offense,” it continues. “The court shall issue an order to expunge all records and files related to the arrest, citation, investigation, charge, adjudication of guilt, criminal proceedings, and probation related to the sentence.”
Advocates say that thousands of Vermonters could see their records automatically cleared because of the revised possession language.
However, the bill must still advance through the House before going to the governor’s desk, and there may be logistical and procedural challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic.
This development comes as legislators and activists continue to push for the legalization of marijuana sales in the state.
Both the House and Senate approved legislation to create such a tax-and-regulate model for cannabis. A bicameral conference committee, which as been appointed to merge the differences between the chambers’ bills but has not met yet, is one of the last steps needed to allow for legal cannabis commerce. The Senate approved S. 54 with a veto-proof majority last year during the first half of the two-year legislative session. The House voted in favor of its version of the legislation in February.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) said last month that the legislature will reconsider the legislation to legalize marijuana sales later this year, though she feels lawmakers and the administration are appropriately focused on responding to the health crisis for now.
Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed the earlier noncommercial legalization bill into law, has voiced concerns with adding legal sales to the mix. In particular, he is worried about road safety issues. That said, top lawmakers and an administration official indicated earlier this year that the governor is “at the table” in discussions about the current legislation and would be open to using cannabis tax revenue to fund an after-school program he’s pushing.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Mexico Marijuana Legalization Effort Gets Boost From Ouster Of Anti-Reform Senators
Several key New Mexico state senators who have helped to block marijuana legalization legislation are on their way out after Tuesday’s primary election.
The secretary of state has called at least major four races where progressive challengers in districts across the state have won their contests against conservative-leaning incumbents. The Senate president pro tem, Finance Committee chair and several other lawmakers who remain opposed to adult-use legalization were rejected by Democratic voters.
While marijuana reform wasn’t the only thing on voters’ minds, with other major issues such as reproductive rights being at issue in the election, cannabis legislation has been one area where candidates have been pressed during the course of their campaigns.
The results bode well for the prospects of enacting legalization within the next year—a policy supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). In recent interviews, the candidates replacing the incumbents have broadly embraced comprehensive reform.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen (D) lost on Tuesday. The leader was asked in a recent survey about her views on cannabis reform and said that “[a]t this time I will not support the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Mexico” and simply committed to “look at all Legislation that comes before the Senate and evaluate it on its merits.”
She also voted against cannabis reform on several occasions, including for a proposed 2016 constitutional amendment to establish a legal marijuana market in the state.
Meanwhile, her challenger, Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Hamblen, said, “I support the legalization of recreational marijuana as it can provide much needed jobs, can be regulated, and communities can benefit from the taxation.”
“Plus, by legalizing it, we can stop criminalizing people of color and focus more on incarcerating those with legitimate crimes,” she said.
Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith (D) lost his race against retired special education teacher Neomi Martinez-Parra. Smith’s panel declined to act on a House-passed legalization bill last year, ending its prospects. He also voted against the 2016 measure on the floor.
“I do not support legalizing the use until the federal government steps to the plate,” he said recently. “I have over 600 Border Patrol stationed in my district and they will enforce the federal law.”
Martinez-Parra, meanwhile, said the state “needs to diversify its revenue” and legalization represents an opportunity to that end.
“We cannot rely on oil as the major source of revenue,” she said. “I support legalizing and taxing the sale of marijuana, as long as we have the right regulation in place to protect our children.”
Given the opening for Smith’s chairmanship, advocates say the prospects of enacting broader drug policy reform, even beyond marijuana legalization, will be significantly increased since he lost.
Another opponent to comprehensive cannabis reform, Sen. Clemente Sanchez (D), was also shown the door. The senator said that while he supports the state’s medical cannabis program, he felt “we need to ensure that the recreational sales do not hurt it and we are not there yet.”
“We need to make sure that law enforcement can test for impairment and we don’t have that yet. And most importantly we need to keep out of our youth,” he said.
During his time as chair of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, he made a floor motion to specifically request that a legalization bill be referred to his panel in order to kill it. He also voted against legal cannabis on the floor.
Pamela Cordova, a retired educator, beat the incumbent, and she has embraced comprehensive cannabis reform.
“I support legalizing recreational marijuana, with strong regulation and taxation,” she said. “I believe our limited law enforcement resources can be better spent addressing more serious criminal behavior. New Mexico will benefit from the millions of dollars in tax revenue to our general fund at a time we most need it.”
Sen. Richard Martinez (D) appears to have lost his race to Leo Jaramillo, though the secretary of state hasn’t called the race yet. The senator voted to kill a legalization bill in the Judiciary Committee this year, though his record also involves introducing legislation to establish safe injection facilities in the state and voting for the 2016 legalization measure. Even so, advocates say he’s become increasingly conservative in his votes.
Jaramillo, on the other hand, stated clearly that marijuana “should be legal for both medical and recreational purposes.”
“It will attract new industries to the state and trim New Mexico’s heavy economic independence on oil production,” he said. “The legalization of recreational cannabis will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The legalization of marijuana would be one step in a new direction.”
Sen. Gabe Ramos (D), who was appointed to the office last year, is out after losing to school psychologist Siah Correa Hemphill. He hasn’t cast a vote on legalization during his time in the seat, though advocates expected that he would align himself closer to the conservative faction of the party. When discussing the issue, he’s stressed that he would have to see the final product before making a decision, though he anticipated passage.
“I really want to see the actual bill before it gets on the floor,” he said in January. “I have a feeling that it’s going to pass, with restrictions.”
“We’ll have to look closely at those restrictions, what they’re going to be,” he added. “I know there’s a lot of concern from the legislators that I’ve talked to, but if we got a good bill with restrictions, I think it could pass. The proof will be in the pudding, he said, when it goes through the committees and then to the floor.”
Hemphill said “I support legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico as a way to free up law enforcement to address more pressing criminal activity.”
“With proper regulation and taxation, marijuana sales could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue for schools, roads, and healthcare,” she said.
While Tuesday night’s election results generally favored cannabis reform advocates, there were a couple examples of opponents holding on to their seats.
Incumbent Sen. George Muñoz (D) defeated a progressive challenger, and he’s previously voted against legalization. Likewise, Judiciary Chair Joe Cervantes (D) won his reelection race. His panel voted to table a legalization bill during the short session at the beginning of the year.
During that hearing, the chair raised concerns with provisions around labor union influence on the marijuana industry and directing the state to subsidize medical cannabis purchases for low-income patients. He also took issue with the specifics of language allowing people with past drug convictions to obtain licenses.
Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico state director for Drug Policy Action, told Marijuana Moment that, overall, the election results mean that “New Mexico takes one step closer to legalizing cannabis.”
“As a result of last night’s primary, a handful of powerful Senate Democrats who supported the drug war status quo and blocked cannabis legalization year after year have lost their elections,” she said. “The Democratic candidates, if they win in November, are likely to vote in favor of cannabis and other drug policy reform measures.”
The vote “signals that New Mexico can become the next state to legalize cannabis for the right reasons: protecting consumers, keeping cannabis out of the hands of our children, putting medical cannabis patients first, reinvesting back into communities most harmed by prohibition and diversifying our economy.”
It remains to be seen whether legislators will again make an attempt to pass legalization legislation when they convene for a special session on June 18, but what’s clear is that voters sent a message by ousting these key senators: they’re ready for progressive change. When the new legislature is seated for the 2021 session, several Democratic opponents of legal cannabis will be gone, and they will likely have been replaced by supporters.
In December, a cannabis working group established by the governor released a poll showing overwhelming public support for cannabis legalization.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.