Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Bills frame Texas' 2017 marijuana reform debate

In the wake of legalization votes last week in California and elsewhere, marijuana is bubbling up as a sleeper issue, as evidenced by the first day of bill filing at the Texas Legislature yesterday. The Texas Tribune published a brief roundup of marijuana-related legislation filed so far. Four bills were filed lessening criminal penalties in some way, shape, or fashion, and three others would authorize some version of legal medical marijuana, as is now available in the majority of states. After last week's election, more than 20 percent of Americans live in a state with legalized recreational pot.

Medical marijuana is beyond this blog's ken. But how will the 2017 debate at the Texas Legislature be framed on the question of reforming criminal laws governing pot?

In 2015, then-Rep. David Simpson's bill to "treat it like tomatoes" dominated discussions by formally proposing the most radical legalization framework possible. While more than a few legislators agreed with Simpson, filing that bill scared off the leadership and doomed more moderate proposals, which made it out of committee but never received a vote on the House floor.

This session, there's hope that could change. There are several serious proposals being made which IMO have a mathematical chance of passage in the current environment.

The most straightforward version is state Rep. Harold Dutton's HB 82, which would reduce penalties for possession of less than one ounce of pot from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. HB 81 by Rep. Joe Moody would create a new civil penalty to apply to low-level pot possession (Sen. Jose Rodriguez filed companion legislation). And HB 58 by Rep. James White would establish new specialty courts for diverting marijuana cases.

Of those options, folks who want full-blown legalization most prefer Rep. Moody's bill, which essentially takes pot possession out of the criminal code and formally decriminalizes it. Advocates who favor that approach argue that removing the criminal penalty absolves defendants from an array of federally mandated collateral consequences which apply to even minor drug convictions.

More conservatives, last session including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, are comfortable with Rep. Dutton's proposal to reduce penalties for low-level possession from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. This has the benefit of not creating some new class of civil penalty which currently doesn't exist in that form under Texas law. And politicians can still rightly insist they did not support "decriminalization," a phrase which for many has Culture War implications. (Former Governor Rick Perry has embraced "decriminalization" as a goal, but did not do so until he was on his way out of office.)

Either Moody's or Dutton's proposal would reduce jail costs from processing and housing marijuana defendants, as well as relieve county governments from the obligation to pay for lawyers when defendants can't afford one. So those bills would incur significant cost savings for county governments, which pay for those things with local property taxes. Indeed, shifting high-volume offenses from B to C misdemeanors and bail reform which would reduce pretrial detention should be embraced by less-government conservatives as a source of local tax relief.

Rep. White's HB 58 would create specialty courts for first-time marijuana offenders, imposing a waivable $100 fee on them to participate and requiring 8 hours of community service or a class. The incentive is basically to get an order of non-disclosure related to the offense. To me, this needlessly adopts a half measure when the public is already way ahead of the Lege on this topic.

In 2015, a Texas Lyceum poll found that 46 percent of Texans supported full-blown legalization of recreational marijuana, while another 28.5 percent opposed legalization but supported "decriminalization." So three quarters of the public, according to that well-regarded poll, support at least what Rep. Moody has suggested and want policies more radical than Reps Dutton or White.

The public overwhelmingly favors reform. Counties need the budget relief. Now it remains to be seen if political will can be mustered to change the law.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of the special court proposal. How many of these are we going to have? Counties are already mandated by law to have drug courts and vet courts based on population size. We can't have specialty courts for everything. Lowering penalties seems like a much smarter use of resources. Unless these specialty courts will be funded by all the border security money DPS "needs."

Anonymous said...

Marijuana being reduced to a class 'c' could have more punitive consequences than remaining a class b misdemeanor. If you don't pay your ticket/fine, municipal/jp court fee, costs for a "marijuana class," ol'smoky is much more likely to have a warrant for failing to pay and end up in the pokey.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:02, that's already true with Class Bs, but the max fines are higher.

Anonymous said...

So, legalization or penalty reduction reforms are in the wind. What implications for drug-testing at the work place if any?? How will this impact Juveniles?? Any differently?? Will this increase need for more JP and Mini courts?? I don't know any of this so just asking?

Chris H said...

"After last week's election, more than one in 20 Americans live in a state with legalized recreational pot."

17 million Americans, (one in 20) live in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. They had access to legalized recreational pot before the election.

50 million Americans live in Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California. Those states passed recreational pot last Tuesday. That brings the total to 67 million or one in five Americans.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Chris! I had 20 percent in my head (actually calculated it the other day for a prior post) and converted to 1/20 when I typed it! Fixed.