Wednesday, March 16, 2005

No opposition to marijuana restructuring in committee!

So far, so good.

The law enforcement and prosecutor lobbyists were all in the back row watching, but nobody signed up to oppose HB 254 by Houston state Rep. Harold Dutton, which would restructure sentences for low-level marijuana possession, in Tuesday's House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing. ACLU, NORML
, and a handful of well-coifed members of the public spoke in support, telling the committee the legislation would free up much-needed jail space and provide taxpayer relief. A judges' representative testified "on" the bill, meaning they didn't take a position for or against. Rep. Dutton cited FBI statistics indicating each marijuana arrest currently costs local government around $10,000, which would work out to around half a billion dollars or so annually, statewide.

There were two significant changes in the committee substitute (new language given to the committee under the same bill number) from the filed bill: People ticketed would have their drivers license suspended for six months, as per federal law, and be required to attend a drug education class. Dutton said the class would reinforce the seriousness of the offense, but that making it a Class C misdemeanor would keep the offense off most job applications and cause fewer young people to enter the probation system.

A resource witness from the Texas Department of Transportation explained the license suspension provision. Citing a federal statute I was unaware of, she told the committee that when a person is convicted of a drug offense, Texas must suspend the person's driver's license for six months in order to meet the federal highway funds requirements. So as originally drafted, the bill would have jeopardized about 10 percent of federal highway funds coming to Texas. Dutton's substitute, she said, complied with this federal law.

Anyone like Rep. Elvira Reyna, R-Mesquite, who feared supporting the bill might look soft on crime to her constituents, should be much-comforted by the result: Once she explains that small-time pot smokers will receive a stiff fine and lose their driver's license, most folks will think that's plenty of punishment, particularly since her home county doesn't have space in the jail to incarcerate them right now, anyway. Hell, make me Philosopher King and I'd say that sounds like piling on. But bound by the constraints of federal law and slowly shifting attitudes among Texans about incarceration, Dutton's bill makes a lot of sense.

As is common practice, the bill was left pending in committee and may be voted on any time.

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