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Texas House Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana

The Texas House of Representatives voted to approve a measure to decriminalize marijuana in the state. It’s a win for marijuana advocates. However, more work is ahead before the bill can pass the Senate and ultimately ends up on Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) desk for his signature. Still, an early win in the House gives the bill’s sponsor Rep. Joe Moody (D), hope that marijuana laws in the state are shifting, paving the way for changes in how Texas enforces laws surrounding cannabis.

What provisions does House Bill 218 include? HB 218 could have the power to change the legal landscape in Texas.

What Is House Bill 218?

House Bill 218, sponsored by 11 Democrats and two Republicans, aims to decriminalize marijuana. Bill sponsor Rep. Joe Moody (D) says the bill addresses marijuana possession more wisely, allowing individuals to possess small amounts of cannabis without significant legal penalties. Currently, possessing up to one ounce of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor. Conviction means a punishment of up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine. Under the proposed new law, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana would be changed to a Class C misdemeanor, removing the risk of jail time. Fines imposed for a Class C misdemeanor conviction max out at $500.

The measure also outlines that possessing up to two ounces of cannabis would not result in an arrest. Instead, violators could be cited and released. Individuals convicted of subsequent marijuana possession convictions for holding up to two ounces of marijuana could potentially seek to have their convictions expunged from their record. Advocates of the measure say the bill could have a major impact on the Texas justice system.

A majority of Texans support decriminalizing cannabis possession in the state. A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll finds that 72 percent of Texans support decriminalizing marijuana by punishing the offense with only a citation and fine. At least 55 percent of Texans say they favor even broader legalization measures.

Additional Measures in the Works to Support House Bill 218

The Texas House is also working on supplemental marijuana legalization legislation like House Bill 3562, a measure that would regulate the legalized cultivation, distribution, and possession of cannabis in Texas. The bill currently sits in the House Licensing & Administration Procedures Committee. The measure proposes a ten percent tax on cannabis products. The resulting revenue would go to local municipalities where marijuana businesses operate. The remaining revenue would support a public-school teachers fund. However, HB 3562 does not propose specific steps for supporting social equity goals like similar measures in other states.

HB 3562 would give localities the power to set rules for governing marijuana businesses in their area. Localities could dictate hours of operation, location, number of cannabis growers, and cannabis testing facilities. However, municipalities could not outright ban marijuana businesses from operating within city limits.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Moody (D), says no other cannabis retail market bill has gotten a committee hearing like this in the Texas Legislature. Even if the bill stalls, he hopes its progress thus far reflects the changing times and can spark a public conversation about marijuana legalization in Texas.

Already, some Texas municipalities have passed local ballot measures reforming or enacting new cannabis policies. However, officials in those municipalities continue to challenge the vote and seek to undermine voter-approved cannabis measures. Perhaps the only way to resolve these complicated issues is to enact broad, state-wide cannabis laws to decriminalize and legalize recreational cannabis use.

Hurdles to Marijuana Decriminalization in Texas

House Bill 218 now moves to the Texas Senate, facing an uphill battle. Traditionally, marijuana legislation has been unable to pass the Senate. In 2019, the Texas House passed a cannabis decriminalization bill only to have the legislation stall in the Senate. The Senate majority is Republican, and many Republican senators are fundamentally opposed to marijuana decriminalization and legalization.

Even if the measure could pass the Texas Senate, it would still need Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s signature to become law. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely, given the governor’s stance on marijuana and his previous comments about decriminalization.

In October 2022, President Joe Biden announced his stance on marijuana reform. President Biden said he would pardon all prior Federal offenses for simple possession of marijuana. The President urged state governors to do the same. For his part, Gov. Abbott said he would not consider pardons for low-level marijuana offenses.

Gov. Abbott has said he supports decriminalizing marijuana in Texas. However, he has previously misquoted current marijuana laws making some cannabis advocates question his commitment to decriminalization. Additionally, when the Texas House passed a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, longtime Abbott ally, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), quickly quashed the bill. Gov. Abbott’s previous statements and actions on cannabis reform make his stance on the subject fuzzy at best.

Although House Bill 218 faces challenges, many marijuana advocates hope it opens lines of communication between the people and Texas legislators. As support for marijuana legalization and decriminalization grows, there is a disconnect between the people’s will and how legislators govern from the Texas State Capitol.

Perhaps Rep. Joe Moody (D) will get his wish. He said that he hopes his work on House Bill 218 can create dialogue about how Texas manages law enforcement resources. He further said he hopes the discussion can encompass whether decriminalizing marijuana can be one method for changing how drug laws are enforced while simultaneously strengthening law enforcement’s ability to respond to more serious crimes.

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