AUSTIN -- Inside a crowded hearing room at the Texas Capitol, supporters waited to testify before the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on a bill to reduce the punishment for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
"I found out that we spend $10,000 to prosecute on cannabis charge, yet for a year of schooling for one student the state of Texas spends $8,498," said Austin parent Jaclyn Finkel. "So we actually spend more to put someone in jail for a non-violent offense than we spend to educate our children."
The law would do away with jail time, up to 180 days under current law, for anyone arrested with an ounce or less of marijuana.
Filed by state Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston), HB 184 would reduce the crime from a class B misdemeanor to a class C misdemeanor, the equivalent of a traffic ticket and punishable by a fine of up to $500. The bill would require offenders to complete a drug abuse course, and those convicted a third time would face possible jail time.
"We had about 70,000 arrests for marijuana in Texas based on the last stats that we got," Dutton told KVUE Tuesday. "Most of those were for very minor quantities of marijuana. After talking to some of the judges in Harris County, talking to some other people throughout the state, one of the things that occurred to me is that we're not being very smart by doing this."
For possession of a few seeds of marijuana, Dutton says counties can spend an average of $60-70 a day incarcerating a single offender. He argues prosecuting and jailing those offenders statewide costs Texas big money, and can become for some the beginning of a cycle of jail time.
"It may have started with just a half a joint of marijuana and now it's spiraled into all these other things," said Dutton.
"It's a big step in the right direction, but it's not going as far as we would like," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.
Convinced by other supporters to testify before the House committee while visiting Austin for South By Southwest, Kampia says Texas leads the nation in marijuana-related arrests, costing the state roughly $700 million a year.
"The folks of Texas like to think of themselves as fiscal conservatives and they don't want to see a lot of waste and government bloat," said Kampia. "One way to start is to wipe the penalties for marijuana possession. You could do away with 70,000 arrests, save a bunch of money, empty the courts. It's a big deal in Texas."
After voters in the states of Washington and Colorado elected to decriminalize marijuana in November of 2012, bills easing restrictions on marijuana have passed through legislative committees in the states of Illinois, New Hampshire and Oregon.
The U.S. government has consistently held marijuana to be a dangerous drug, and the U.S. Department of Justice has announced it will soon decide the federal government's response to state actions legalizing it.
"It causes harm because it's young people that are using it," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Chief Michele Leonhart testified before a U.S. Congressional committee last June.
The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee itself has in the past been extremely critical of easing punishments, worrying such a measure could increase marijuana use.
Dutton disagrees, and suggests the nine member committee chaired by state Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) may be more receptive to the idea this year than in previous sessions.
"I say that we give a ticket to people for running red lights," Dutton said. "I don't think that encourages running red lights."