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.”
Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote
A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.
The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.
Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.
Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.
Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.
— Texas NORML (@TexasNORML) March 25, 2019
“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”
While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.
“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.
What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.
During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.
According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee
A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.
The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.
Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.
“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”
The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.
While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.
“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.
It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.
The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.
A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.
This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate
Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.
The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.
But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.
“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”
History is rarely made on the very first try. But, eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.
Join me live in Trenton as we recommit to passing adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement legislation. https://t.co/Ebts137XJ6
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”
I proudly stand with @GovMurphy, @SpeakerCoughlin, @SandraBCunningh & @SenatorScutari. We didn’t have the votes today, but we will continue to work together in order to bring adult use marijuana and criminal justice reform to New Jersey pic.twitter.com/BWxDchfiQ4
— Steve Sweeney (@NJSenatePres) March 25, 2019
“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.
"We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model," says @SpeakerCoughlin on cannabis legalization, medical Marijuana, & expungement bill package pic.twitter.com/CwT6C5WlsX
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”
In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.
“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”
Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.
“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”
Our commitment to adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement has not wavered. We know the people of New Jersey are on our side.
Change is never easy, but we will keep fighting. pic.twitter.com/xMeay0MlTx
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”
“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.
With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.
“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.
“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”
A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.
This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.