Texas lawmaker files bill to decriminalize small amounts of pot

Another city in Texas has approved a cite and release policy for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

The Dallas City Council approved that new policy, Wednesday. Those caught with less than four ounces of marijuana will be cited and ordered to appear in court instead of arrested and taken to jail.

A bill in the Texas legislature could relax marijuana laws even further, decriminalizing small amounts of the drug.
House Bill 81 would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a civil penalty, basically a ticket, carrying a fine up to $250. It would not legalize any amount of the drug, however, anyone caught with a small amount of marijuana would not have the offense on their record. 

Under the pink dome, fittingly in office number E1-420, Representative Joe Moody (D-El Paso) is fighting an uphill battle to pass a law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“I think the people outside of this building are convinced that we need to change our law. The challenge that I have is changing minds inside the building,” Moody said. 

The former prosecutor said, if the bill makes it to the House floor, many lawmakers might agree there are several benefits for offenders, law enforcement and taxpayers alike.

“It’s not an efficient use of our dollars. It's not an efficient use of our law enforcement time and resources and we're saddling what are mostly young offenders with collateral consequences that follow them for the rest of their lives,” said Moody. 

The City of Austin currently employs a cite and release policy for less than two ounces of marijuana. Those caught with small amounts of weed are issued a citation in most cases and not arrested at the time. It is then up to the court to determine what penalties the offender will face.

“You've got to look at the benefices to the community and if you have folks that do have a small amount of this, it's still seized, and we cut those people loose, because what ends up happening is we clog up the system with so many people being booked in for such a smaller amount,” said Lt. Robert Richman with Austin Police Department’s organized crime unit. 

Dallas adopted a cite and release policy Wednesday and, since March, Houston has allowed first time offenders to take a class instead of facing time behind bars.

“Local governments understand that they are overburdening their jails, they are overburdening their law enforcement with these types of low level offenses, and they're saying, ‘We're not going to treat them the same anymore,’” Moody said. 

The Austin Police Department said they are not finding as many large quantities of marijuana since a number of US states legalized the drug, at least not coming from the cartels or gangs. But they have had an increase in the number of possession charges for small amounts of pot.

Rep. Moody said the idea that decriminalizing the drug would increase use of it is simply false.

“That's not born out by any other state that has done this. That is not a fact. That has not happened and, so to me, that's a fairly easy argument to rebut in that we wouldn't be the first state to engage in this type of law change,” said Moody. 

HB 81 is currently in calendars. A similar bill introduced last legislative session never made it to either chamber for debate. Moody said he believes the vote could be close if the bill does reach the House floor.