Texas lawmakers hear public testimony on marijuana decriminalization

Penalties for marijuana possession could soon be relaxed statewide, that's if House Bill 81 passes. State lawmakers held a public hearing on it Monday. Eight states have now legalized marijuana possession. Texas is trying to catch up with decriminalization.

Marijuana policy reform is being talked about more than ever. Daryoush Austin Zamhariri says it's about time. He was arrested for possession of marijuana, under 2 oz, in 2010.

"I think the thing that's most disturbing is that it took six squad units, eight police officers and a K9 unit to arrest a non-violent criminal, or non-violent offender, of marijuana. You know, those resources could really be used for other things like sexual assault," says Zamhariri.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee listened to public testimony Monday. Dozens showed up to voice their support, so many that they had to open up an overflow room. HB-81 was introduced by Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso. It would remove the threat of arrest, jail time and a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. In its place, would be a civil citation and a fine of $250.

"Some say, 'Oh that's terrible. Why would you want to reduce the penalties on people?' Well excuse me, $250 dollars is not a laughing matter. It's still a disincentive to use marijuana. We're not talking about legalizing marijuana," says John Delaney, retired State District Court Judge.

Under current law, possession of two ounces or less is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail. Taxpayers pay a price too.    

"Sometimes they can't make bail; sometimes they stay there for a week or more waiting for court. While they're in jail, the public is responsible for their healthcare," says Delaney.

The state Legislature passed a cite-and-release bill in 2007. It allows officers to issue citations for small amounts of marijuana, which is currently in use in Travis County. Now lawmakers are trying to get something similar statewide.

"We make the average citizen collateral damage by not doing this. We had 60,000 to 70,000 marijuana possession cases in Texas. So yeah, that's a lot of cases. When you think about how we can redirect time and resources from those cases to the violent criminal cases, I feel like we can really make a big impact," says John Jay Hall, former law enforcement.

There are still others who oppose.

"It seems to be the only overall goal here is recreational marijuana. We've been opposed to that for many years. We still see marijuana as an introductory drug," says Sheriff A.J. Louderback, Sheriffs' Association of Texas.

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