AUSTIN - Rep. Joe Moody is selling his bid to rewrite the state's marijuana laws as police-friendly.
"At its core, it's about good government and efficient use of taxpayer resources," the El Paso Democrat said in an interview. "I think this is pro-law enforcement."
Police aren't convinced. Law enforcement are lining up against a bill that Moody filed this week to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Instead of a misdemeanor, possession will be a civil offense that carries a $100 fine.
Even so, an idea that once seemed impossible in conservative Texas - easing restrictions on pot - appears to be gathering support from the public and others.
A former prosecutor who is now on the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Moody believes his is the first marijuana decriminalization proposal in Texas.
Fourteen other states have retired their criminal laws for possession of small amounts of the drug. Four of those - Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska - have taken the next step of legalizing it.
Moody said marijuana users aren't the only Texans who pay a price under the current drug laws. The state spends $734 million a year to make 70,000 marijuana-related arrests and prosecutions, he said. Most involve small amounts and young people.
Under the status quo, even paying a criminal fine for marijuana possession is technically a conviction that cannot be removed from someone's record, he noted.
Consequences include lost jobs, apartments, college financial aid or naturalization - not to mention an automatic driver’s license suspension.
Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that makes a minor bust "a life sentence."
"It has a crippling affect," Fazio said. "It just buries them.”
Some in law enforcement are lining up against the proposal. A spokesman for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas told the Houston Chronicle that the group will lobby to "stop the legalization of marijuana at any level.”
The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has not taken a position, but a spokesman said it's watching the situation. The group advocates for police labor and legal issues on behalf of 20,000 members.
"Our concern is that it does not have unintended or intended consequences or undermine good public-safety policing," said spokesman John Moritz.
Johnson County Sheriff Bob Alford said he opposes making possession a civil infraction, instead of a crime.
"It's the gateway drug to all other drugs," Alford said.
Not all who smoke marijuana become heroin addicts, he conceded, but "they all started with marijuana."
Even with that expected opposition, Moody's proposal is gathering support from the likes of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition and Texas editorial writers.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called it "the proper step to take." The Beaumont Enterprise's editorial page noted that almost two-dozen states legalize marijuana for medical purposes, adding that "it's time for Texas to shift to fines for possessing small amounts of pot."
Public opinion also seems to be shifting. Gallup reported last year that most Americans favor legalization.
Nathan Jones, a political scientist and drug policy expert at Sam Houston State University, said Texans' attitudes track those of the rest of the nation.
When pollsters frame the issue as allowing for the regulation of marijuana like alcohol, support in Texas is 58 percent, he said.
"The minute you say we're going to regulate, you see the support (rise) at least 5 percent," he said. "I would say the bill actually has a chance."
One reason that other states have loosened marijuana laws before Texas, he said, is that they have voter initiatives. The question here is whether the Legislature will take up the proposal.
"The question is, will it get a vote?" he said.
Katharine Neil, a fellow in drug policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said supporters of decriminalization framed the issue in an incremental way designed to bring along skeptics.
"I think they've separated the issue of decriminalization from legalization," Neil said. "Under decriminalization people can still be arrested and fined. For those reasons it's not the same as legalization."
Under Moody's proposal, those found with a small amount of marijuana will be brought to court by citation, rather than arrest.
Police will still make arrests for using marijuana and driving, public intoxication or disorderly conduct. Officers who smell marijuana also may conduct searches.
But penalties won't escalate for those caught with an ounce or less of marijuana more than once.
Busting people for small amounts of cannabis takes police and sheriff's deputies away from investigating and preventing more serious crime, Moody says. Arresting a kid for a joint can take an officer off the streets for half a day.
"It's a better use of law enforcement," he said. "There's not a law enforcement officer in this state that's bragging that he popped a kid for a joint."