Emotional Testimony on a Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

The The Texas House State Affairs Committee last night heard testimony ranging from heartbreaking to cold and analytical, but all of it in support of a bill that would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, what the bill calls a 'usable quantity,' a parking ticket, punishable by a maximum of a $250 fine, with no arrest, and no criminal record or court appearance, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), who chairs the committee, also allows the $250 fine to be waived, if the person goes through a drug counseling program.

Witnesses ranging from police officers to prosecutors to Republican Party activists told the committee that current laws which make possession of under two ounces of marijuana a Class B misdemeanor, involving the possibility of six months in jail, the need for a posted bond and court appearances, is a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, police officers' time, and ruins otherwise promising lives.

"The State of Texas spends $73 million a year enforcing our marijuana laws," said Hunter White, a leader of the Young Republicans of Houston and a law student at hte South Texas School of Law, told the committee.  "Of all 72,000 marijuana laws in 2013, 97% of these were for minor marijuana possession, the type of possession that HB 81 aims to address."

The committee was told that every marijuana arrest costs taxpayers $10 thousand, and takes a police officer off the streets for more than half of the officer's shift.  

But the most heartbreaking testimony was from people like Lori Zapinsky, whose lives have been upended by an arrest for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Zapinsky, who lives near Waco, gave the members of the committee a nickel before she testified.

"The reason I gave you a nickel, when you put that in your hand, that weighs five grams," he said.  "That nickel weighs more than the amount of marijuana I was caught with."

But she said the arrest, which took place more than a decade ago, continues to weigh her down.

"I was ridiculed by some people for being stupid for using cannabis, I have been called a 'stoner,' I have been told by people 'just imagine what you could have been,' and I have to tell every potential employer that I have been convicted of a crime."

Several witnesses pointed out that it is ridiculous for Texas to continue to waste time and energy prosecuting people for committing a crime which is completely legal in eight states, and decriminalized in several others.

Many witnesses told horror stories about being kicked out of the U.S. military after serving in wartime due to a minor marijuana arrest.  Veterans with PTSD testified about how marijuana is good at alleviating their symptoms, freeing them from the need to take pills, with their unpleasant side effects.

This is the first time a marijuana decriminalization bill has made it to a Legislative Committee, and law enforcement agencies, which have opposed efforts to lighten marijuana penalties in the past, are neutral on the issue this time.But the bill's future remains uncertain.  

After signing a measure allowing the medical use of cannabis oil, just by certain seizure patients, following the 2015 session, Gov. Abbott indicated he did not support any more efforts to reform the state's marijuana laws.

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