Pot decriminalization advocates continue to press lawmakers

Prospects are dim for a proposed law that would decriminalize most low-volume pot possession in Texas as the special session of the state Legislature winds down, but backers made an effort Wednesday to prevent them from going up in smoke entirely and to set the stage for continued advocacy of the issue.

A handful of supporters of House Bill 334 — which would reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana in the state to that of most traffic tickets — turned out for a public hearing at the Capitol, saying it will free up law enforcement resources to fight serious crimes and will prevent otherwise law-abiding citizens from facing potentially life-altering criminal prosecution.

The intent of the hearing, held by the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, was mainly tactical, because Gov. Greg Abbott sets the agendas for special sessions and hasn’t included marijuana decriminalization or any other marijuana-related issues in the current one, which ends next week.

But state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso — who chairs the jurisprudence committee and sponsored HB 334 — said that continuing to work on the bill now by soliciting input will better position it for success during the next regular session of the state Legislature in 2019. Moody has sponsored decriminalization bills in the past two regular legislative sessions that were unsuccessful.

“This is an opportunity to get a head start” on the next session, Moody told the American-Statesman. “I don’t intend to not take the opportunity to delve into this issue.”

Meanwhile, there’s a chance — albeit a small one — that Abbott could opt to add marijuana-related issues to the agenda during the waning days of the current special session. If that happens, HB 334 could be taken up by the full House quickly because the required public hearing on it already has taken place.

Moody said he doubts Abbott will add the issue to the special session. Spokesmen for Abbott didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in the past the governor has voiced opposition to marijuana legalization.

HB 334 would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil, not criminal, offense for a person’s first three citations. A similar bill sponsored by Moody cleared a key committee during the regular legislative session this spring and was scheduled for a potentially historic vote by the full House, but it got caught in a logjam of bills as the session came to a close and was never taken up for consideration.

Under HB 334, law enforcement officers would write tickets for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana instead of making arrests. People issued those tickets would pay fines of up to $250, do community service or attend substance-abuse classes, but wouldn’t suffer the permanent stigma of having a criminal record and wouldn’t crowd local courts and jails. Current Texas law categorizes possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and six months in jail.

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