Bill reducing criminal penalties for small amounts of pot faces tough battle in Texas Senate

A bill that would reduce criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana made it through a final House vote Tuesday, but faces a lot of opposition in the Senate. 

103 representatives, many of them Republicans, voted in favor of House Bill 63. However, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweeted Tuesday morning that the bill is "dead in the Texas Senate.”

“What happened today has not happened in the legislature for 45 years. We voted on substantial marijuana policy reform,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who authored the bill.  

The legislation, as it's currently written, would change possession of up to one ounce to a Class C misdemeanor. It's currently Class B. Those caught with small amounts of pot would no longer be arrested, jailed, or lose their driver's license. 

“This bill would actually save local taxpayer dollars, because the amount of money we're spending is at the local level. It's at the county jail, it's with the police departments,” Moody said.  

Moody changed the original version of the bill, which would have decriminalized possession, after working with Gov. Greg Abbott. 

“I'm grateful when any leader will discuss policy and actually engage in a respectful dialogue, even if they're not quite on the same page,” said Moody.  

Someone Moody said hasn't discussed the bill with him is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Instead, Patrick tweeted, "Criminal Justice Chair Sen. John Whitmire is right that HB 63 is dead in the Texas Senate. I join with those House Republicans who oppose this step toward legalization of marijuana." 

“At best that's disingenuous, at worst it's dishonest. It's just not what the bill is,” Moody said.   

Whitmire said Patrick is referencing something he said two weeks ago, before the bill was even amended. 

“We'll see what the final count looks like, but I never would say it's dead,” said Whitmire.  

“This is not the right way to govern. We can't govern through Twitter. We should talk to each other like the governor’s office talked to our office up until the last second the bill was going up on the floor,” said Moody.  

However, even if Whitmire gets the bill out of committee, Patrick has the power to make sure HB 63 goes up in smoke. 

“Mr. Patrick is the odd man out here and the ball is in his court,” Moody said. 

“I'm of the opinion that the votes are not there today in the Senate, but we've got about a month left and I know the House vote gave it momentum, so, we'll just see how the Senate does,” Whitmire said.  

The Texas National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is already reaching out to senators hoping to find more support. 

“We need to work out what issues there might be so that we can make sure we have some kind of quality policy that's helping Texans right now, not in another two years,” said Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML.  

With less than four weeks to go in the session, any excitement surrounding Tuesday’s House vote may be short lived.

“It ain't dead until it's May 27,” Finkel said. 

Fox 7 Austin reached out to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s press office to speak with him about his Twitter comment, but were told he is not available. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Abbott has said publicly he supports reducing penalties for low level misdemeanor offenses.