Texas legislators aim to revise marijuana policies, decriminalize low-level possession

Lauren Abel

With more than 30 cannabis-related bills filed for the ongoing 87th Texas legislative session, legislators from both parties aim to change marijuana policy in Texas to reduce the consequences for low-level possession charges.

During the 86th legislative session, Joe Moody, representative of Texas House District 78, proposed House Bill 63, which aimed to decriminalize marijuana possession. The bill received a supermajority in the Texas House, but was declared dead in the Senate by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. This year, legislators are attempting to pass similar legislation in hopes of making it through the Senate. 

Although the Austin Police Department no longer makes arrests for low-level possession, the UT Police Department does not follow the same regulations and continues to issue citations.

Erin Zwiener, representative of Texas House District 45, filed House Bill 441, which aims to reduce the charges for possession of four ounces or less of cannabis to a misdemeanor, prohibit arrest for low-level possession, provide for automatic expungement and prevent penalties towards having a driver’s license. 

Zwiener worked with Moody to create the bill, which closely mirrors HB 63. Zwiener said she hopes the bill will reduce the long-lasting ramifications of possession charges which, under current conditions, can influence access to housing and employment.

“We have so many young folks who end up with this black mark on their record who are at a disadvantage of getting a job and finding housing for the rest of their lives,” Zwiener said. “This disproportionately impacts Texans of color.”

Younger populations are also vulnerable to criminal records for possession, said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. A majority of those arrested on possession charges are high school and college-aged youth, and two-thirds receive a conviction. 

Fazio said current legislation in Texas yields multiple penalties for marijuana possession including jail time and a criminal record which can hinder access to education, employment and housing. Fazio said Texas arrests 60,000 to 70,000 people annually for possession of marijuana. 

“We — like most Texans — agree that marijuana prohibition has been a failure by every measure,” Fazio said. “We do think that sensible regulation — reasonable regulation — would be a better alternative to prohibition.”

Zwiener said another concern with current legislation is the amount of law enforcement resources spent on cannabis crime.

“This legislation should save our law enforcement hundreds of millions of dollars that they’re currently using to pursue this crime of possession of a small amount of cannabis,” Zwiener said.

APD assistant chief Joseph Chacon said most of the proposed legislation will not have a significant impact on day-to-day operations as bills passed in the previous legislative session already altered APD's procedures for marijuana charges.

“When things really changed for us was when last session they passed House Bill 1325, and that one is not related to marijuana. It’s actually related to hemp,” Chacon said. “It has significantly changed the landscape for us because it would, at that point, hamper our ability to quickly be able to identify what is marijuana.”

House Bill 1325 legalized the production of hemp by Texas farmers as long as it contains no more than 0.3% THC which is substantiated through a pre-harvest test.