Texas would become the 25th state in the U.S. to remove the threat of being jailed as a punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana under a bill approved by the state House of Representatives on Monday.
The legislation, which would punish people caught with an ounce or less of cannabis with a $500 fine instead of arrest and incarceration, passed by a vote of 98 to 43.
Rep. Joseph Moody (D), the chief sponsor, amended the bill on the floor in order to win more support from colleagues. An earlier version included a lower fine—$250—and would have treated low-level possession as a civil infraction instead of a class C misdemeanor as is the case under the revised proposal.
But its broad effects remain the same: No arrest or incarceration for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.
They will also avoid long-term criminal records as long as they follow terms of deferral assigned by judges, such as doing community service or completing drug education classes. The provisions, which individuals can take advantage of as much as once a year, also apply to possession of paraphernalia.
"Texans have suffered under failing marijuana policies for far too long," Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said. "Rep. Moody's bill will help preserve valuable public safety resources and keep a marijuana charge from derailing someone's life."
The proposal also sets out a procedure for people to have marijuana offenses expunged—meaning that they would not have criminal records, which can have long-lasting consequences on employment, housing, educational opportunities and the ability to maintain a driver's license.
While Gov. Greg Abbott (R) opposes broader cannabis legalization, he said during a reelection debate last year that he is open to more limited reforms such as those that would be accomplished under the decriminalization bill.
“One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” he said. "I would be open to talking to the legislature about reducing the penalty for possession of two ounces or less from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor."
"Although this compromise isn't as far as I'd like to go, I'm not going to sacrifice the good for the perfect," Moody said of the amendment prior to the vote, noting that he spoke with the governor's office on Monday about the changes. "If this is what we can do, then this is what we must do."
The Republican Party of Texas endorsed decriminalizing cannabis last year.
“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” reads a platform plank approved at the 2018 party convention.
In neighboring New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed a marijuana decriminalization bill into law earlier this month.
The Texas legislation was approved by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee last month. After an additional House vote for third reading approval, expected as soon as this week, it will head to the Senate for consideration.
"This is a historic step forward in changing Texas's current draconian marijuana laws," Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, said. "Now, we turn our sights to the Senate so that this important policy can make its way through the legislative gauntlet and start helping Texans."
Last week, the House voted to unanimously approve a bill to legalize industrial hemp and its derivatives, including CBD.
Meanwhile, legislation to expand Texas's limited medical cannabis program has cleared a key House committee and could reach the floor soon.
While there is no strict legal definition of "decriminalization," advocacy groups including the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) use the term to describe laws that avoid incarceration for low-level cannabis crimes, with most decriminalized states issuing fines to people caught possessing the drug.
"HB 63 would save thousands of Texans from life-altering and traumatic arrests and incarceration, while freeing up police resources to focus on crimes that have victims," Karen O'Keefe, MPP's state policies director, said.
Twenty-four other states—including 10 that have legalized marijuana outright—already have policies on the books that do not send first-time low-level cannabis possessors to jail.
Besides Texas, a number of other states may soon enact such laws.
Alabama's Senate Judiciary Committee a marijuana decriminalization bill this month. It has not yet been scheduled for floor action.
Lawmakers in Hawaii are working to reconcile the differences between versions of marijuana decriminalization legislation that have passed the House and Senate there.
A Missouri House committee also approved a bill to decriminalize cannabis this month.