For the past three years, Governor Greg Abbott has been viewed as a primary hurdle to rewriting Texas’ draconian marijuana laws. So on Friday, when he revealed he’s “open” to the idea of reducing criminal penalties for low-level pot possession during a debate, activists cheered it as a “green light” for cannabis reform ahead of the 2019 legislative session.
Still, Abbott’s version of marijuana reform pales in comparison to that of his party, which this summer voted to support eliminating criminal penalties for small-time possession altogether. Not to mention the majority of Texas voters, who, according to the most recent polling, support legalizing cannabis. That leaves many marijuana reformers in the familiar and awkward position of both lauding the governor’s new stance while also arguing that it doesn’t go far enough.
On Friday, during his one and only debate with Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez, Abbott said he’d be willing to consider legislation (presumably by not vetoing it) that would reduce possession of up to 2 ounces of pot from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C. Rather than the current punishment of up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine, petty pot possession would be a non-jailable offense more like a traffic violation, carrying only a fine of up to $500. “One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Abbott said during the debate.
Abbott’s approach would erase the threat of jail time for minor pot possession but wouldn’t eliminate other serious consequences that can follow a drug conviction, such as loss of housing, employment or student financial aid. “Setting aside the details of what the governor said, the fact that he’s moving on this is itself huge,” said Heather Fazio with Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “But that still wouldn’t remove all the collateral consequences for possessing a plant that many other states have decriminalized.”
Fazio favors the approach by state Representative Joe Moody, a former El Paso County prosecutor, whose House Bill 81 last session would have made possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a civil, rather than criminal, offense punishable by a maximum $250 fine. That means violators wouldn’t have a drug conviction on their record. Reformers are also pushing lawmakers to expand the extremely limited Compassionate Use Act that Abbott signed in 2015. During Friday’s debate, Abbott admitted that veterans groups and others pushing to expand the medical marijuana law have made a “compelling” case, but then added, “I’m still not convinced yet.”