Bill proposed to reduce some marijuana penalties in Texas to fines

Some law enforcement officials joined House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Joe Moody, (D-El Paso), at the State Capitol Thursday to show support for a bill that would reduce penalties for low-level marijuana possession.

HB 81 would replace the threat of arrest, jail time, and a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250.

"According to the state of Texas, I'm a criminal," said U.S. Army Veteran David Bass, who advocates for marijuana reform with Texas NORML.

After 21 years in the Military and several deployments, Bass was prescribed a cocktail of painkillers and psychotropic drugs to treat his chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.

"I became addicted to the opioid pain medication," says Bass.

He calls a small amount of marijuana a medicinal way to successfully treat his symptoms, but since it's illegal in Texas, he lives in constant fear of getting caught.

"All the time, 24-7 I'm concerned about it," says Bass.

Under HB 81, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would not go on a criminal record, and the fine that would have to be paid would be much like a parking ticket.

"And I wouldn't have to worry about my house being raided, or me being put in prison," says Bass.

The Texas legislature passed a cite-and-release law ten years ago. It allows officers to issue citations for small amounts of marijuana. The goal is to ease the burdens on jails and police officers.

Travis and Hays counties put cite-and-release into action. Williamson County Commissioners accepted a grant to run a pilot program in Round Rock in September, although some commissioners had reservations.

"I think there is something to be said for a deterrent for the first time you get arrested," one county commissioner said in a September meeting.

Criminal defense attorney Mykal Fox says that even with cite-and-release, license suspensions and criminal histories hit low-income families hard.

"That's a big factor for many of my clients, not being able to drive, and then just not to be able to get a job," said Fox, who supports HB 81.

"Our jails are full. It would prevent some of that," Fox said.

While Bass says that while his ultimate goal is to one day be able to legally purchase medical marijuana at a dispensary in Texas, HB 81 is a step in the right direction.

"Because I don't have a criminal record, and I don't want a criminal record," he said.

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