Texas House Gives Initial Approval To Marijuana Decriminalization Bill, Setting It Up For Final Passage In The Chamber
The Texas House of Representatives gave initial approval to a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the state on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, a committee heard testimony on separate legislation to more broadly legalize and regulate cannabis sales.
The chamber passed the legislation from Rep. Joe Moody (D) on second reading in a voice vote, setting it up for final passage in the chamber.
“I’m very proud to bring you a bill that will lower taxes, improve economic opportunities for Texans and strengthen the ability of law enforcement to respond to serious crimes,” Moody said on the floor. “House Bill 218 does that by changing the way we enforce laws around the personal use possession of cannabis.”
“Possessing a small amount of cannabis is still illegal. We’re just addressing it in a smarter way than we do now,” he said. “What this will do is free up hundreds of millions of dollars that currently go into enforcement, keep police on the street working more serious cases instead of processing these petty arrests and make sure those who would currently end up with a record that interferes with jobs, school, housing and licensure come out of the process without any permanent stigma.”
The vote comes about a month after the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee unanimously passed the measure, which would remove the risk of arrest or jail time for low-level possession of cannabis and allow people to eventually erase cannabis issues from their criminal records.
The House has already passed similar cannabis decriminalization proposals during the past two legislative sessions, in 2021 and 2019. But so far the proposals have consistently stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the chamber.
It’s unclear if Patrick will again seek to block the reform legislation. Marijuana Moment reached out to the lieutenant governor’s office for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
HB 218 combines two separate measures from the most recent session, both of which passed on the full House.
It would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, removing the risk of jail time and instead imposing a maximum fine of $500. Existing law classifies possession of small amounts of cannabis as a Class B misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine.
The bill also specifies that possession of up to two ounces of cannabis would not result in an arrest, meaning violators would be cited and released. Further, people with possession convictions for up to two ounces of marijuana could seek to have those convictions expunged through a court process for a $30 fee.
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“The House’s continued support for penalty reduction is heartening,” Texas NORML Executive Director Jax James said. “We do have more work to do as it heads to the Senate, so I encourage my fellow Texans to reach out to their senators to encourage their backing as it moves through the legislative process.”
Meanwhile, the House Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee held a hearing on another bill from Moody on Wednesday that would more broadly legalize marijuana sales. It allow adults to purchase, possess and gift up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis. They could also grow up to 12 plants, so long as they’re kept in a secure, enclosed space.
The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation would be responsible for administering the program, including developing a process to license marijuana businesses.
The bill, HB 3562, proposes a 10 percent tax on cannabis products, and revenue would go to local municipalities where marijuana businesses are operating (10 percent), counties where those businesses are located (10 percent), a “cannabis testing and quality control fund” (one percent) and administrative costs. The remainder would support a public school teachers fund.
Localities couldn’t ban marijuana businesses in their area, though they could set rules “governing the hours of operation, location, manner of conducting business, and number of cannabis growers, cannabis establishments, or cannabis testing facilities.”
It doesn’t appear that the bill proposes to take any specific steps to support social equity goals, such as expungements or licensing prioritization for people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Moody noted the “historic” nature of the hearing on the legalization bill.
“No cannabis retail market bill has ever gotten a hearing like this in the Texas Legislature,” he said. “That reflects the changing times we’re in, and I think of this as the beginning of a public conversation about whether this is the right policy for our state. I certainly think it is.”
Rep Joe Moody: “I do want to impress upon you (Chairman) and the committee just how historic this is. No cannabis retail market bill has ever gotten a hearing like this in the Texas Legislature. That reflects the changing times we’re in, and I think of this as the beginning of a…
— Texas Cannabis Collective (@txcannaco) April 26, 2023
Earlier this month, the House separately passed a bill to allow medical marijuana as an opioid alternative for people with chronic pain and also replace the state’s THC limit, sending the legislation to the Senate for consideration.
Nearly three in four Texas voters (72 percent) support decriminalizing marijuana, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll in December. More than half (55 percent), meanwhile, said they’re in favor of broader legalization. Seventeen percent said it shouldn’t be legal at all.
A more recent survey from the same institution similarly showed that a majority of Texas voters feel that the state’s marijuana laws should be “less strict.”
Texas lawmakers also recently filed a series of new bills aimed at promoting and expanding psychedelics research in the state.
On the local level in Texas, meanwhile, activists have succeeded in enacting municipal cannabis reform policies. Most recently, voters in five cities—Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen and San Marcos passed marijuana decriminalization ballot measures in November.
Local officials in some of those municipalities have sought to undermine the voter-approved cannabis measures, however,
Voters in San Antonio as set to decide on a similar cannabis decriminalization initiative next month.
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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.