A proposal to reduce penalties for marijuana possession in Texas was approved by a committee on April 3, and now it gets bumped up to the next step: a full vote in the Texas House of Representatives.
The measure received bipartisan approval from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, passing by a vote of 4-2, with support from two Democrats and two Republicans.
HB 81, authored by committee Chairman Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) with 37 co-authors, would remove the threat of arrest, jail time, and a criminal record for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of up to $250.
Under current Texas law, individuals found in possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana can be arrested and given a criminal record, and face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
To sweeten its chances, Moody offered a revised version of the original bill to allow judges the option of elevating the civil offense to a Class C misdemeanor if the suspect has already been cited three times for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, calls the proposal a "moderate shift" in how Texas manages low-level marijuana offenses.
"The state's current policy of arresting and jailing people for simple marijuana possession is completely unwarranted," she says in a release. "Law enforcement officials' time and limited resources would be better spent addressing serious crimes.
"No one should be saddled with a lifelong criminal record simply for possessing a substance that is less harmful than alcohol," she says. "Texans overwhelmingly agree that the punishment for simple marijuana possession should be reduced to a simple fine."
There were 61,749 marijuana possession arrests in Texas in 2015, and more than 418,000 from 2010-2015, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The ACLU reported in 2013 that African-Americans in Texas are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested for low-level possession offenses than whites, despite consuming marijuana at about the same rate.
According to a June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, more than two-thirds of Texans, or 68 percent, support reducing the penalty for low-level marijuana possession to a citation and $250 fine; only 26 percent are opposed.
The proposal still isn't in the clear. It now advances to the Calendars Committee, which determines whether it will get a crack at a vote by the full House.