After a brief discussion, the Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would reduce the penalties for low-level possession of marijuana — a move lauded as a win by those eager for the state to take its first major step toward loosening its staunch marijuana laws. But hopes of turning the bill into law remain slim. After the House grants final approval for the bill — usually just a formality — it will head to the Senate, where presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has expressed opposition to the idea of loosening marijuana possession penalties. The lower chamber voted 98-43 in favor of House Bill 63 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, after he changed it on the chamber floor from a decriminalization measure to one that reduces the penalties for possession. The bill lowers possession of 1 ounce or less from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, which is the same classification as a traffic ticket. After state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who applauded Moody for spearheading the bill, asked the Democrat why his measure had been “watered down,” Moody said he did so in the hopes of getting it to the governor’s desk. “I’m not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect. If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do,” Moody said. “We can’t keep hauling 75,000 Texans to jail every year.” Those found to possess 2 ounces or less or marijuana but more than 1 ounce would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor — punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, jail time or both. “When I first proposed changing our criminal penalty for personal use of marijuana to a civil penalty, there was some support and even more caution,” Moody told other representatives. The revised version of HB 63 would make it so Texans caught with 1 ounce or less of marijuana can’t be arrested. Instead, judges would automatically put those offenders on deferred adjudication probation. If an offender successfully completes the terms of his or her probation and does not commit more than one offense in a calendar year, his or her record would be expunged, Moody said Monday. The bill would also ensure that Texans possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana will not have their driver’s licenses suspended.
Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Thirteen other states have made possessing small amounts a civil offense rather than a criminal infraction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Texas, possession of any amount of marijuana is illegal, but some district attorneys in larger Texas counties, including Dallas and Harris, have already pledged not to prosecute first-time, low-level offenders. Moody has tried in the past several sessions to get this legislation to the governor’s desk, but to no avail. The House vote Monday marks significant progress for Moody; it’s the first time the lower chamber approved such a measure. But the opposition of the lieutenant governor remains a major hurdle. In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”