(Austin) I need your input on something. As part of my service as your representative, it is my duty, when particularly difficult issues arise, to come back to you and discuss what we, as a district, want to see happen in our state. One of those issues has come up, and I want to hear from you.
In the coming weeks, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence will vote on HB81, which takes the current penalty ladder for marijuana possession and adds a new rung at the bottom. Currently the ladder starts at 2oz or less of marijuana, which carries a Class B Misdemeanor charge. Class B convictions carry up to a $2,000 fine and up to six months in prison.
HB81 will add a new level, where, for the first offense, possession of less than 1oz will carry a civil fine of $250 with no criminal conviction, similar to a speeding ticket. Subsequent offenses will carry increasing penalties, with civil fines giving way to criminal charges after the third offense.
I don't want to see Colorado style legalization of marijuana in Texas, an increase in drug use, or to see our youth take drug use less seriously, but we also must consider if additional punishment beyond a certain point actually helps achieve the intended purpose of our criminal justice system; to protect the public, discourage bad behavior, and punish those who do wrong. So, given those purposes, and the severity of the crime of possessing under an ounce of marijuana, does the current punishment really fit the crime?
I have brought the question of public protection to multiple members of law enforcement, both in the public testimony on the bill and in person, and received only one response, that they would rather deal with someone using marijuana than someone under the influence of alcohol. Marijuana use rarely, if ever, causes violence; while alcohol, a completely legal drug, does so on a regular basis. How this level of possession could pose a danger to the public worth six months in jail while alcohol remains legal does not seem to match up properly.
Additionally, protection of the public requires that our young people be able to pursue careers in law enforcement and in the armed forces. Currently, a criminal conviction for marijuana possession, even for the smallest of amounts, permanently eliminates these fields from their futures, at a time when only 29% of graduating seniors are eligible to join either service. Allowing for a civil penalty, and a chance to change their ways, may actually end up making the public safer than throwing them in jail would.
During the public testimony on the bill last week, we heard from Dr. William Martin, the Director for the Baker Institute Drug Policy Program at Rice University. He brought with him a study just released by the Baker Institute this month which referenced a review of 12 years of data showing that marijuana reform had no relationship to crime rate changes, controlling for other factors.
If reducing the penalty for marijuana possession does not affect crime rates, then the previously harsher penalty did not have any deterrent effect. If it did, then removing the harsher penalty would have reduced the deterrence, increasing the rate of drug offenses.
Without any additional security or deterrence provided by the harsher penalties, can we justify such a harsh penalty for a first offense only on the crime simply being heinous enough to deserve such punishment on its own?
Speeding claims the lives of thousands of Americans every year; yet, we feel fit to punish this reckless behavior, that has the chance to take the lives of others, with a fine only. Alcohol use causes as much, if not more, substance abuse problems, as marijuana; yet, we allow measured use with no penalty at all. I have a hard time seeing where this level of punishment is justified when similar activities are not punished, and far more dangerous activities carry far more lenient penalties.
We exercise great vigilance towards other areas where government may go beyond the means necessary to achieve its designated purpose. A regulatory agency that uses excessively restrictive regulations must be reined in, taxes that go past funding the needs of a government to fulfil its duties must be cut, and criminal penalties that exceed the level needed to accomplish their purpose must be reduced; how else can we continue to consider ourselves supporters of limited government?
I've given you my current thoughts on the matter, but now I want to hear from you. I invite all of you, especially those whose opinions may differ from mine, to share your thoughts on this important issue. You can reach the HD20 capitol office at (512)463-0309, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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