19 states and Washington D-C have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Across the country there’s an effort to expand these policies.
Marijuana comprises more than half of all Texas drug arrests and 97% of those were for possession of 2 ounces or less. An ounce makes about 60 marijuana cigarettes.
El Paso Police chief Greg Allen says those statistics hold true in El Paso. He says those arrested for marijuana possession usually have no prior drug convictions or criminal offenses.
“You’d be surprised. I mean some of the people you’d think are your pillars of the community you find out that they are drug users.” Allen says.
Allen says most of the marijuana arrests going down in El Paso are for small quantities classed as misdemeanors punishable by up to 180 days in prison and a fine of up to two thousand dollars. But Allen says police often give violators a warning instead.
“When I was on the streets patrolling I never made an arrest for a joint. I make them tear it up, that was more painful right there when they are having to get rid of the cigarette than it would be to get arrested, because they wanted it that badly” Allen says.
But Texas State Representative (D-78) Joe Moody points to 2013 FBI data; 70,000 Texans were arrested for marijuana possession.
“Can law enforcement exercise discretion and not arrest someone sure I bet they could but you still look at the data” Moody says.
And the vast majority of offenders are under 30 years old.
As a former prosecutor Moody says he has seen the futures of young offenders destroyed by the criminal sanction that comes with a possession offense.
“If they are convicted of that offence you are looking at if you had a financial aid grants those could be off the table for you, federal student aid is definitely off the table, getting a job is going to be extremely difficult because those criminal background checks are going to show up” he says “Renting an apartment. Anything a young person is needing to be doing to kind of get on their feet to get their life going, all those things can be derailed by a minor conviction” Moody says.
So last legislative session Moody introduced a bill to remove the criminal penalty for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana.
“We prosecute drug offense by weight, so we took the lowest grade offense under criminal law cut it in half and made it a civil sanction” Allen.
With the civil penalty, offenders would have faced a $250 fine, potential community service and drug counseling. But the bill failed. Decriminalization is already happening in some parts of Texas, Moody’s bill would have made it state law.
El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza says criminal convictions can crush an offender’s future and career. But he says there are programs in El Paso that already allow offenders to walk away from possession charges with clean record. He says changing the criminal penalty to a civil one would remove the deterrent to marijuana use.
“We is the balance between can we correct your behavior and keep you from commiting the crime in the future, can we do that and can we do it in a smart way where there is consequences and you can still have a productive life” Esparza says.
But contributing, productive and employable members of society is also a key concern for the Texas Association of Business and El Paso Chamber of Commerce. And both organization along with the ACLU and the KAY Tea party have endorsed Moody’s decriminalization bill. Like Moody these groups are concerned about what Texas marijuana policy is doing to the employability of the state’s workforce.
“There is a class of young people that are becoming unemployable and that is not good for the Texas economy. If you are trying to fill you have a work order on something and you have to hire a certain amount people and there is a restriction on drug convictions so now you can’t it makes it hard to fill that job. Is that the best way for us to run our policy if they are perfectly capable otherwise? Probably not.” Moody says.
Moody’s bill failed by a slim margin during the session, tt did get bi-partisan support. It is the farthest any marijuana decriminalization bill has ever made it through the Texas legislature. Moody says he is developing a revised version of the bill for the next session.
19 states and the District of Columbia- have policies decriminalizing marijuana.
In New Mexico possessing an 8 ounces or less of marijuana is a criminal offense. Just like in Texas a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot failed in the legislative session.