Hell hasn’t frozen over because of Texas’ pot-friendly mistake

by | Dec 9, 2019 | Criminal Justice, Policy

This year, more than 60 marijuana-related bills were filed in the Texas Legislature. 

Most, like newly-born tadpoles, were destined to die in the state’s GOP-controlled legislature. But one critical bill, which would have represented the most significant shift in statewide marijuana policy since the 1970s, advanced out of the Texas House and to the Texas Senate before hitting a brick wall, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

In April, less than a day after the House voted 98-43 to pass Rep. Joe Moody’s (D-El Paso) bill with bipartisan support, Patrick took to Twitter to call the bill dead out of solidarity with House Republicans who had lost the vote fair and square.

The bill would have reduced the criminal penalty of possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, effectively making getting caught with a joint equal to getting pulled over for failing to signal a turn.

“We even had the governor’s support for this policy,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, in an interview. “Unfortunately, the lieutenant governor did the only thing that was in his power directly, which was to not refer the bill.”

Fazio told the Signal that Patrick’s move was telling because bills, even if they are unlikely to pass the Senate, are referred from chamber to chamber as an order of business. “I think it would have passed it, and I think he knew it would have passed, and that’s why he had to take that extreme measure to stop it,” she said.

Since the legislative session has come to a close, Fazio’s group and Texas NORML, another marijuana policy reform organization, have been meeting with lawmakers to continue building a winning coalition on marijuana reform, developing workshops to train advocates, and are continuing their voter guide program that asks lawmakers how they stand on various marijuana-related policies.

But Patrick will be back next session in 2021, advocates warn, and it will be up to GOP lawmakers to actually listen to their most loyal voters and pressure the lieutenant governor into giving responsible marijuana policy reform a fair hearing in the Senate.

Luckily, a trial run of soft decriminalization is already underway. The new state law that went into effect in September legalizing hemp production in the Lone Star State has thrown Texas law enforcement into disarray. 

Unable to cheaply test for the differences between hemp and marijuana, some of the largest counties in Texas have been simply tossing out cases instead of taking them to trial. 

So far, hell hasn’t frozen over. Leading into 2020, that may be the leading argument– a living case study–  in favor of marijuana legalization. “We are going to use this as an opportunity to talk about how it’s possible,” Fazio said. “We’re not going to see increased rates of crime. The sky isn’t going to fall, and it hasn’t.” 

And while some Texas counties —like Harris, Bexar, and Fort Bend —have already been diverting low-level marijuana possession cases from going to trial, driving a couple of miles from one county to another could have drastic consequences for how Texans are punished by the law.

In 2017, more than 78,000 Texans were arrested for possessing less than two ounces of marijuana, according to the latest available state data. Likewise, more than 43,000 Texans were convicted of marijuana possession in 2017. 

Possession of marijuana continues to be the number one offense Texans are arrested and convicted for, above DWI’s and domestic abuse cases. 

Countless hours and money are burned through for the state to sort through these cases, even if just to ultimately deliver a small fine. And the personal toll: Texans arrested for carrying between two to four ounces of weed– about less than half a cup coffee– can face up to a year in prison and pay a $4,000 fine, not to mention legal costs or loss in pay.

“This ongoing criminalization of marijuana, and the rabid enforcement of marijuana prohibition, financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color,” a spokesperson for Texas NORML told the Signal. “It makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective, or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is safer than either alcohol or tobacco.”

Photo: Norman Posselt/Getty Images

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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