DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Possession of one ounce of marijuana or less can land you in jail, but Texas lawmakers are taking a serious look into changing that.
New legislation with bipartisan support would make it a civil offense, rather than a criminal one. It’s a move that would not only keep Texans out of jail, but keep their criminal records clear.
A traffic stop nine years ago changed the course of Austin Zamhariri’s life when Grapevine police found marijuana in the car he was driving
“I had no idea it was there. I tried to plead with the officer I had no idea whose it was. They arrested me anyway,” he said.
Zamhariri said he entered a deferred adjudication program to avoid a conviction. A background check by CBS 11, though, found a record of his initial arrest.
He said prospective employers, landlords and financial assistance programs see it, too.
“On job interviews, it would pop up,” he said.
He abandoned plans to return to school over difficulty accessing financial aid because of the arrest.
“That shouldn’t be something that defines you as a person,” he said of the mark on his record.
On Monday, the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence heard testimony on House Bill 63, which would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, making it instead punishable by “a civil penalty” of no more than $250.
“Our current system is a disaster,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Joe Moody.
He testified that there are 75,000 arrests every year in Texas for marijuana possession, with the average arrest being for one-third ounce.
“It actually makes us less safe because that arrest takes an officer off the street for up to half a shift dealing with processing and paperwork, then further overcrowds our jails and clogs our courts. And it does absolutely nothing to deter marijuana use since usage has remained steady for years,” Moody told fellow lawmakers.
Representatives from the Plano, North Richland Hills and Grand Prairie police departments testified against the bill, arguing that it remains a “gateway” drug and pointing to studies showing negative impacts in states that have legalized it.
“What this bill would effectively cause is desensitizing citizens of this state to the dangers of the harmful, this harmful and dangerous drug, one step at a time, until full legalization is achieved,” said Grand Prairie Assistant Police Chief Ronnie Morris.
An ounce of marijuana, Morris also testified, could be used to make 40 “marijuana cigarettes,” contesting the assertion that it is only a small amount of the drug.
The bill is among nearly a dozen filed this session with the intent of decreasing penalties for marijuana possession.
Though Democrats have taken the lead in authoring the majority of the bills, the state GOP signaled its support for decriminalization last year making it part of their platform: “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…”