Texas marijuana law changes proposed

The cost of policing, prosecuting and punishing violators of Texas’ still stringent marijuana laws is enormous — in dollars, the toll on individuals and the burden on the overall criminal justice system.

About 70,000 arrests (or 6.5 percent of all arrests) in Texas each year are for marijuana possession, and carry an annual price tag of about $734 million, according to state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who notes that the vast majority of those violators are accused of simple possession.

If a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans gets its way, the Texas Legislature will further decriminalize marijuana possession next session.

Moody introduced a bill this week to make possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana a civil action that carries a $100 fine rather than a crime punishable by jail time.

In addition to abolishing jail time for such an infraction, proponents of the law say, it removes the threat of arrests and a criminal record for those accused.

Current Texas law provides for punishment of up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine for anyone convicted of possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana.

Joining forces with Moody in announcing the proposed change were Texas District Judge John Delaney and other members of the coalition representing organizations such as Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, the ACLU of Texas, Marijuana Policy Project and Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

The coalition cited a 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling that showed that more than 60 percent of Texans favored limiting punishment to a fine of $100 for possession of up to an ounce of the drug.

While decriminalization is likely to be a tough sell in the next Legislature (and with Gov.-elect Greg Abbott opposing it), it is the proper path to take.

The ACLU’s Matthew Simpson states it clearly:

“The war on marijuana is a failure and has needlessly ensnared hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, at tremendous human and financial cost. It’s time to implement reforms that are fairer, more compassionate and smarter at reducing drug dependency and improving our health and safety.”