In the first major movement this session for marijuana legislation, Texas state House lawmakers are holding public hearings this week for a dozen marijuana-related bills.
The Public Health Committee is hearing a bill for medical cannabis research on Wednesday and the Agriculture & Livestock Committee is hearing a bill Thursday to beef up hemp regulations.
But the majority of the action will take place in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday when lawmakers are scheduled to review at least 10 bills relating to the criminal penalties and prosecution of possession of marijuana.
“I feel very good that at least one of them will make it to the floor of the House for a vote and make it over to the Senate,” Heather Fazio, the director for the advocacy group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy told the Signal.
Many of the bills up for consideration lower the criminal penalties for possession of two ounces or less of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, making possession the same legal classification as a speeding ticket — something Gov. Greg Abbott promised to support during a televised debate in 2018 when he was last up for re-election.
HB 441 filed by Rep. Erin Zwiener goes the furthest of the bunch, including preventing arrests, a criminal record, and the suspension of a driver’s license for possession.
That legislation mirrors the bill by Rep. Joe Moody that passed the Texas House in 2019. But before it could even get a vote on the Senate floor, it was declared dead on arrival by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who said it was a step toward legalization.
Moody’s bill initially reduced possession of marijuana to a civil penalty, which only requires a fine (something a Legislative Budget Board analysis at the time found would save local governments $3.6 million in court costs). In order to gain bipartisan support for the bill to pass the House, the civil penalty was later amended to a Class C misdemeanor instead, which is what Abbott said he was willing to support.
Currently, none of the legislation scheduled for Tuesday’s hearing makes possession a civil penalty, but Fazio said she hopes that will change in committee.
“This is important because of the collateral consequences associated with a criminal drug offense, even if it is just a Class C misdemeanor,” Fazio said.
“The distinguishing factor between a Class C misdemeanor like a speeding ticket and a Class C misdemeanor like low-level marijuana possession is that marijuana possession is a drug offense — and that in our system, because of how the war on drugs has structured penal codes, triggers significant lasting collateral consequences,” Fazio said.
Those consequences include access to education, employment, housing, and the suspension of one’s driver’s license that comes with a conviction for any drug-related offense.
One factor this session that could see the passage of legislation in the Texas House reducing possession of marijuana to a civil penalty is its new speaker, Dade Phelan. The Beaumont lawmaker was one of the original four joint authors who supported Moody’s bill in its original form.
And there’s also the growing public support from Texans too. A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll in February found that 60 percent of Texas voters favored legalizing small or large amounts of marijuana.
Things would ultimately again be up to Dan Patrick, who single-handedly torpedoed the legislation last session.
So far, there’s no real indication that Patrick has shifted his stance — that any and all criminal penalty reductions for marijuana are trojan horses for legalization — but Fazio said she did find a small victory in a joke the lieutenant governor made to during the Texas Young Republicans 2021 Legislative Dinner, and which he had previously tweeted:
“The fact that he started out his speech with a joke about marijuana, even if it wasn’t a good joke, still tells us that we’re winning — he’s talking about it, we’re winning,” Fazio said.