AP NEWS

Lighter penalties for pot makes sense

May 18, 2019

Reducing penalties for small amounts of marijuana is about being smart on crime. It’s not the first step toward legalizing recreational use of pot.

That is an entirely different issue that warrants its own debate. But it is not what House Bill 63 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, seeks.

Here are the real issues behind Moody’s bill, already given preliminary approval in the House.

Putting people who pose no threat to the community in jail for minor, nonviolent crimes prevents them from caring for their families and keeping their jobs while they await adjudication. So, families suffer.

And jailing these offenders means an uptick in recidivism, particularly for those who languished because they are unable to afford even the percentage it takes to secure bail bonds.

Time in jail — at $40 to $60 a day in Bexar County — isn’t cost-effective for nonviolent offenders who pose no risk to the community. And convictions for even minor crimes can have pernicious ripple effects that damage lives far into the future.

These facts are what prompt cities and counties such as San Antonio and Bexar County to institute cite-and-release programs that keep such people out of jail.

The irony here is that the Legislature gave that discretion to local governments — and part of the reason for doing this must have been acknowledgment that possession of small amounts of pot was part of that larger problem of jailing people who pose no threat to the community.

Now, however, the Legislature, thanks to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, is performing last rites over a bill that would reduce penalties for small amounts of marijuana — possession of 1 ounce or less would be a Class C misdemeanor, essentially equivalent to a traffic ticket. But 2 ounces or less would still be a Class B misdemeanor, with a $2,000 fine, jail time or both.

Patrick recently said HB 63 is dead on arrival at the Senate. This is happening while San Antonio and Bexar County put into a place a program that would, among other minor nonviolent crimes, apply to possession of 4 ounces or less.

Got it? While the Legislature already gives local governments the discretion to allow people with 4 ounces or less to avoid jailing and trial — if they take some logical steps — it will not, on its own, lessen the penalties for marijuana possession for even lesser amounts. The Senate is reasoning that crowding jails with people who commit the minor, nonviolent crime of possessing less than 1 ounce of pot is reasonable collateral damage — in cities and counties without cite-and-release — in the name of blocking marijuana legalization.

This makes no sense.

Texas inexplicably leads the nation in marijuana-possession busts — some 63,599 in 2016, according to FBI data. That’s not broken down by the amounts of pot possessed, but the experts say a significant number are for small amounts. These are not drug kingpins. Only 1,350 people were arrested in 2016 in Texas for marijuana sales.

Patrick and others apparently view marijuana as a so-called gateway drug to harder drugs such a heroin and methamphetamines. The experts, meanwhile, say that we might as well say that alcohol and nicotine are gateway drugs. And they’re legal. Virtually any drug can constitute an on-ramp to harder drugs under this theory.

Patrick and others are essentially labeling this bill a gateway bill leading to broader legislation liberalizing marijuana use. But with or without HB 63, we suspect that debate is inevitably coming — even to Texas. In our estimation, that debate is years away, barring surprises at the polls in the near future. But, again, this bill isn’t what that is about. Not even remotely.

It’s about saving taxpayers the expense of jailing people for extremely minor pot possession — less than even the threshold amounts contained in cite-and-release programs.

Standing in the way of lessening pot penalties might be “tough” on crime — whatever that means — but it is quite the opposite of being smart.