The position of Texans—and their leaders—on marijuana has softened as of late. Earlier this year, Governor Perry changed lanes from his “we can win the war on drugs” rhetoric to speak out about the need to “implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives.” Polling from 2013, shortly after the legislative session ended, indicated that a substantial majority of Texans feel the same way. And now, if the legislature is interested in doing something about the changed public attitudes toward marijuana, they’ve got a vehicle to do so.
Representative Joe Moody has introduced a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in Texas. Instead of a criminal charge, those cited would face a civil penalty and a $100 fine.
That would be a huge shift, and a significant one: According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, ninety percent of drug arrests are for possession, rather than delivery or distribution, and marijuana possession arrests represent ten percent of the total number of arrests carried out in Texas annually, for any crime. In 2010, the ACLU reported that nearly 75,000 Texans were arrested for marijuana possession.
Economically, the cost of all that enforcement is also massive. According to the ACLU’s numbers, between police, judicial and legal expenditures, and incarceration, Texas spends over $250,000,000 a year on enforcing current marijuana possession laws. (That doesn’t include the economic impact of the huge number of Texans who are missing from the workforce because they’re in jail for possession.)
That decriminalization of marijuana makes economic sense has been clear for a long time, and its impact on people who, as Governor Perry described, have had their lives destroyed by the current laws is obvious. Those have never been the questions: What has been a question is whether we feel that criminalizing marijuana possession is worth those costs.
As Texas criminal justice blog Grits For Breakfast notes, the cultural moment might be right for this to pass:
Polling won’t scare legislators off this time, and the economics of the proposal are favorable both to counties and law enforcement agencies. Plus, there’s already an appetite for reducing penalties. A couple of other reps – Dutton and Wu – have filed bills reducing possession of small amounts of pot (one ounce and .35 ounces, respectively) to a Class C misdemeanor. And last session, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee voted out a bill to reduce the offense level for offenders under 21 to a Class C. Indeed, going back to 2005, the same committee, then under leadership of Chairman Terry Keel, unanimously supported a bill to reduce low-level pot possession to a Class C; then-Speaker Tom Craddick wouldn’t let it to the floor. Then as now, though, one can count to a majority among House members if leadership would ever let them vote on the issue.
Rep. Moody’s innovation in HB 507 is to create a civil penalty instead of merely dropping the offense to a Class C. The bill specifically says the civil fine will not be considered a criminal conviction and police couldn’t arrest people solely for possessing less than an ounce of pot.
There are arguments for potentially taking decriminalization further. They range from the benefits of marijuana in treating PTSD in veterans to the impact that this has on the Mexican drug cartels. The drum has been beaten on this issue for a while, and the idea that it could come to pass is intriguing.
Of course, all of that depends on whether the bill gets through committee and reaches a vote. The dynamic of the new legislature and the new power structure in state government remains to be seen. But the polling data is promising, for those who’d like to see a measure like this pass. The 2013 poll from PPP posed several scenarios for reforming Texas’ marijuana laws, ranging from the full legalization we’ve seen in other states, to medical marijuana, to the exact sort of decriminalization/civil penalty that Moody’s bill would enact.
Decriminalization, according to the poll, is favored by a whopping 31 points among respondents, at 61-30 (with 9 percent undecided). But even the more extreme measures that include full legalization under certain—or any—circumstances are popular. Medical marijuana gets an approval rating almost identical to decriminalization, at 58-31 (with 11 percent undecided), and full legalization is supported either strongly or somewhat by 58 percent of respondents. The opposition there is more dug in, with 38 percent either strongly or somewhat against the bill, and only 3 percent undecided.
In other words, public opinion suggests that the question of whether this is worth the cost has shifted. And that, perhaps, is what’ll see the legislature take action now that, in the past, might have been more controversial. Legislative sessions can be hard to predict, and there’s a lot on the table, but if Texas is looking for something substantial and bipartisan, this would be a clear place to start.