AUSTIN (KXAN) — State lawmakers will hear public testimony Monday on House Bill 81, which would reduce penalties for low-level marijuana possession.
“House Bill 81 would eliminate the arrest, the jail time, and most importantly, the criminal record currently associated with small amounts of marijuana,” explained Heather Fazio, the Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The bill will recalibrate penalties for low-level possession, making it a simple ticket, rather than jail time and a criminal record.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2015, there were more than 60,000 arrests for marijuana possession in Texas, which made up more than 13 percent of all arrests in the state that year. It’s estimated those arrests and the subsequent prosecution cost taxpayers $1.5 billion.
Supporters of HB 81 argue that money could be better spent elsewhere.
“People want to feel safe in their communities and when we’re prosecuting and arresting people for simple marijuana possession, we’re not giving justice to violent crimes where victims deserve justice,” said Fazio. “It is absolutely outrageous when burglary clearance rates are low, and violent and property crime is going unsolved.”
What makes matters worse, supporters say, is that a majority of low-level possession charges are dismissed.
“When we’re seeing upwards of 50 percent of cases for marijuana possession in Travis County being dismissed, their resources are being thrown out the window and their time is being wasted. We have better things to do with our time,” added Fazio.
However, some people in law enforcement don’t see it that way.
“We still think that’s an accountability of prosecutors to their voters,” said Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback, who serves as the legislative director for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.
The association is opposed to HB 81 and any form of legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, even in small amounts. “Generally, as a social cost of the use of the drug, we believe strong that it’s always been a gateway drug.”
Representatives of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy tell KXAN supporters of HB 81 include a retired Texas judge and a former Houston police lieutenant, who will testify Monday in favor of the bill.
“They know that criminal justice resources are scarce, and they can be used in a much better way,” Fazio said.
A recent poll shows that 83 percent of Texans support medical marijuana, according to the University of Texas and Texas Tribune. The poll also found that 53 percent of Texans support legalization of marijuana for any purpose.
“Prosecutors are overburdened with marijuana possession cases, rather than giving cases like domestic violence, for example, the attention they deserve. Our law enforcement officers are distracted when they’re arresting thousands of people every year for the simple possession of this plant, that the majority of Americans and Texans would prefer to see decriminalized, Fazio said.
Two years ago, Texas lawmakers passed a law legalizing the use of low THC cannabis oil for epilepsy patients. The Texas Department of Public Safety is going to oversee the program when it begins next fall.
In December, Texas Senator Jose Menendez filed Senate Bill 269 to expand medical marijuana use for patients with debilitating and chronic medical conditions.
“I filed this bill because doctors, not politicians, should determine the best treatment for severely ill Texans,” Menendez said. “This is a legitimate medicine that can help a variety of sick people from a grandmother suffering from cancer to a veteran coping with PTSD.”
Right now, 28 states have legalized medical cannabis.