'The Best Shot of Passing': Cannabis Penalty Reduction Bill Gets Committee Hearing in Texas

Rep. Joe Moody and others are trying to reform Texas cannabis laws this legislative session.
Danielle Lirette
Rep. Joe Moody and others are trying to reform Texas cannabis laws this legislative session.
State Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, has been working for years to reduce penalties for possession of cannabis and cannabis concentrates. His House Bill 218, which would do both, got its first hearing in front of the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence last week.

“I’ve been on a journey with this one,” Moody said in committee on Tuesday. “The essence of this bill is really simple even though the language may be a little bit confusing.”

HB 218 would reduce penalties for the possession of cannabis and cannabis concentrates. Marijuana possession of up to 2 ounces is a Class B misdemeanor under current state law. Possession of 2–4 ounces is a Class A misdemeanor that could result in a year of county jail time and a fine of up to $4,000. Possession of more than 4 ounces is a felony, as is possession of any amount of concentrate.

“There are tens of thousands of arrests for personal use possession in Texas annually and those cost our state hundreds of millions of dollars every single year, not to mention countless hours of law enforcement and prosecutor time,” Moody said. “They also tag people, mostly young people, with criminal records that create life-long obstacles to jobs, education, housing and other opportunities. That’s an awful investment and an awful outcome any way you slice it.”

Moody’s bill would change things up. One ounce of flower or concentrate would be a Class C misdemeanor. The charge would be only a citable offense and wouldn’t end in arrest. Between 1 and 2 ounces of flower or concentrate would be a Class B misdemeanor, and between 2 and 4 ounces would be a Class A.

"Moody’s bill is really poised to have the best shot of passing." – Daryoush Austin Zamhariri, Texas Cannabis Collective

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Other versions of this bill have passed out of the House of Representatives twice before in previous sessions but failed to get support in the Senate. Moody said people are still getting arrested for low-level, personal-use amounts of marijuana. “House Bill 218 changes that system to right-size the penalty,” Moody said.

Moody’s bill also requires courts to give the ticketed person deferred adjudication probation. If they successfully complete that, the offense can be expunged from their record.

Offenders would have six months to pay a court-assessed fine. If they stay out of trouble for that time, the court will dismiss the charge. Upon request, the court will also remove the charge from an offender's person’s record.

“The person walks away lighter in the wallet, but without any criminal record whatsoever,” Moody said. “The only difference between this and previous versions of this bill is that it incorporates another effort that we’ve been working on side by side to create parity between leaf cannabis and concentrates. In other words, when someone has a joint or a vape pen we’re going to treat them the same, which isn’t the case under the current law.”

Other bills have been filed in Texas this session to legalize recreational cannabis use altogether or to leave that decision to local governments. But those aren't drumming up as much optimism as Moody's HB 218.

"Moody’s bill is really poised to have the best shot of passing. He has long championed this cause and has made progress session after session," Daryoush Austin Zamhariri, creator and chief editor of the Fort Worth-based Texas Cannabis Collective news site, said. Only one of the committee members asked a clarifying question about the bill and no one spoke in opposition to it during testimony, not even members of law enforcement.

"For the first time, there was no vocal law enforcement opposition to a marijuana penalty reduction bill," Zamhariri said. "It stands a really good chance in the House. From my meetings with legislators, there seems to be near consensus bipartisan support for moving in this direction."

The Senate is where the bill will face its biggest challenge, which is the case for nearly all cannabis reform legislation in Texas. But  Zamhariri is even confident of the bill's chances there. "There may be concessions that have to be made, but I can certainly see HB 218 even passing the Senate."