The Texas House voted in favor of legislation that would lessen penalties for marijuana possession on Tuesday. The bill will now be considered by the Texas Senate, where state Senators have indicated it will face more strident opposition.
Introduced by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, House Bill 63 would downgrade possession of an ounce or less of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor, removing the possibility of jail time for offenders. The bill also eliminates the six month driver’s license suspension currently mandatory for those caught with marijuana. Possession is still punishable with fines or community service.
In a statement after the House approved HB 63, Moody said his work on the bill was inspired by his experience with the criminal justice system.
“HB 63 has been a five-year-long journey,” Moody said in the statement. “It’s one that I began as a prosecutor when I saw firsthand how taxpayer dollars were being wasted on an ineffective enforcement system that ruined lives over such a petty offense. Each year, Texas spends more than 730 million dollars on over 75,000 arrests, almost all of which are for small, personal-use amounts of marijuana”
Though HB 63 does not aim to legalize marijuana, state Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, said eliminating jail time as a penalty would have the effect of “legalizing it for those folks who have enough money.”
“I just want this body to be clear, we are literally taking the position if we vote for this bill that we want this to be a ticketable offense,” Bell said in remarks on the House floor. “Recognizing that we have the effect of legalizing it if you have enough money.”
Moody said he disagreed with the point of Bell’s argument.
“This is not legalizing anything,” Moody said. “Under that same argument, speeding is legal, an open container is legal, any other Class C criminal offense is legal — and I reject that.”
Bell was the only member of the House to testify against HB 63, but two high-profile members of the Senate have pushed back on the bill’s momentum. The chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice committee, John Whitmire, D-Houston, has previously said he does not think there is enough support in the Senate to give HB 63 a hearing.
Shortly after it passed the House, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who serves as the president of the Senate — said he would not consider the legislation.
“HB 63 is dead in the Texas Senate,” Patrick said in a tweet. “I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana.”
Moody’s statement said the lawmaker “remains optimistic” about reforming marijuana laws, because efforts to do so have continued to build support.
“Decriminalization in favor of a civil penalty has bipartisan support and is actually a plank in the Texas Republican Party’s platform,” Moody said in the statement. “Twenty-two states have passed similar measures.”