Marijuana debate ramping up in Texas Legislature

A Texas State House Committee Monday night approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana under specific conditions.

A floor debate in the House on HB 63 may not take place until April.

It's not the first time El Paso Democrat Rep. Joe Moody has tried to scale back marijuana laws in Texas but he is optimistic about the legislation's chance in this session.

"This is the earliest the bill has been voted out," said Moody, "it’s the third Session it has been voted out of Committee with bipartisan support."

HB 63 would make possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana a civil penalty - not a crime - with a fine not to exceed $250. A third offense would be a Class C misdemeanor. The issue, according to Moody, has gained traction in the House, not just because of the new faces under the dome. 

"I think also you had the Republican Party of Texas make step out during the interim and make this an official plant of the party platform, we can’t discount that," Moody said. "That’s a big deal to some people."

Moody disputed characterizations that his bill would take Texas down the same path that resulted in marijuana legalization in states like Colorado.

“This bill does not create a legal path, to a retail market," Moody said. "This is saying we are going to be smarter with our criminal justice resources, we are not going to arrest people anymore, for these low level offenses and we are going to use our taxpayer resources wisely and we are going to use our law enforcement resources wisely."

Moody claims his bill could generate almost $3 million in new court fines each year.

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of Texas law enforcement officers weighed on the issue. The bill was not specifically mentioned but the group made it clear how they felt about decriminalization.

"Texas sheriffs oppose the further legalization of marijuana in the state of Texas,” said Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner.

The sheriffs and police chiefs at the Capitol gathering warned that decriminalizing marijuana has serious consequences.

"Our research has found marijuana in legalized states can increase crime, negatively impact public health, place additional strain on social services, fail to eradicate criminal enterprises and that expenditures often outpace revenue collections,” said Grand Prairie Police Chief Steve Dye.

The group indicated limited medical use and some proposals that scale back criminal penalties are open for discussion.

The law enforcement officers do believe legislation for medical use and lower criminal penalties are part of a strategy to desensitize people, which, they claim, is being done to eventually legalize marijuana.