El Paso councilman opposes marijuana first offense program
El Paso city council member Henry Rivera has come out against a recently approved program which would spare first time marijuana offenders from jail and a criminal record.
First reported by the El Paso Times, Rivera, a former El Paso police officer, is asking for a presentation on the First Chance Program during Tuesday’s city council meeting, and said he wants to publicly oppose it.
Rivera said the council and the public deserve to have the agreement explained to them even though the city charter gives City Manager Tommy Gonzalez the power to enter into agreements with other organizations without council’s approval.
“I just want an open presentation,” Rivera said, adding that he only learned about the agreement through an article on El Paso Times.
The program was unanimously adopted by El Paso County Commissioners in October and agreed to by Gonzales. It allows first time offenders who are caught with 4 ounces or less of marijuana to face community service hours instead of criminal charges, along with a $100 fee. Those found to be in possession while committing another crime would not be eligible, such as possessing a firearm.
District Attorney Jaime Esparza, an advocate for the program, has said that of the 2,600 cases of possession under 2 ounces of marijuana in 2016, about 27 percent, or 700, would classify as first offenders. County Sheriff Richard Wiles has also publicly supported the program.
Rivera’s position has elicited a response from supporters of the program, including local resident Colt DeMorris, who heads up the El Paso chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws as executive director.
“With all due respect, I am appalled by your quoted statements as none of them are backed by facts” Morris stated in an email sent to Rivera.
Rivera stated that the program decriminalizes marijuana to some extent.
“It sends the message that if you get caught with marijuana for the first time nothing really happens to you,” he said. Adding that instead, the program promotes the use of marijuana, which could lead to the use of other drugs.
“Marijuana today is not what it used to be 10, 20 years ago,” Rivera states. “Now, it’s mixed with other chemicals.”
DeMorris responds, “The United States currently has 30 states plus Washington D.C. with medical cannabis and 8 states plus Washington D.C. with recreational cannabis. First off, the states that have implemented these freedom laws haven’t fallen off the face of this Earth. They are doing very well in many ways, from tax money to a better education system and so much more.”
DeMorris cites a number of statistics in his response to Rivera, including
– Opioid overdoses have dropped by 25%;
– Teen usage has declined (dispensaries ask for ID – drug dealers don’t);
– Tax revenue for these states are off the charts;
– People are getting off harmful prescription medications and hard drugs (reverse gateway);
– Police time is freeing up so they may go after real criminals, you know… ones with victims; and
– Jails aren’t as full, therefore allowing people that are meant to be behind bars, stay behind bars.
“Those are just a few off the top of my head. For you to state that ‘Instead, the program promotes the use of marijuana, which could lead to the use of other drugs’ is false and outdated rhetoric,” states DeMorris. “Drop the reefer madness and research for yourself, Sir. No one should ever be arrested for a plant.”
State representative Joe Moody, who represents El Paso, authored an opinion piece for the El Paso Times earlier this month, stating that he believes the program is a good step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough.
“Our district attorney’s new pre-arrest diversion program for personal use possession of marijuana is a step in the right direction that’s long overdue” Rep. Moody writes. “El Paso should never have lagged behind places like Houston and Corpus Christi, which already have similar programs. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel we’re falling behind again with an approach that doesn’t incorporate the lessons other jurisdictions have already learned.”
One of Rep. Moody’s concerns is the narrowness of the program. “If this program represents a shift in thinking about the value of prosecuting this crime, then a person’s record shouldn’t matter. The focus should be on the offense, not the offender.” He adds that the program underscores the need for a legislative fix at the state level.
Rep. Moody serves as the chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and also authored a bill which would have reduced the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana earlier this year. That bill passed out of committee but wasn’t scheduled to be heard by the full Texas House of Representatives in time before the legislative session ended. The next time the legislature meets will be in 2019.
DeMorris is adamant that legalizing marijuana would help people. “There are many patients and veterans that need cannabis to live a good quality of life, and you are standing in the way of that happening with your 1930’s thinking. In the City of El Paso, we waste police resources, court resources and people’s time arresting and charging them with cannabis offenses and this needs to stop! The First Chance Program is a must, although, it is not enough and a bit late.”
He concludes, “Please be on the right side of history and the needs/wants of your constituents. If you would like to sit down and discuss the issue, I am up for that. Please, do what is right and support the First Chance Program. Also, you will find that a lot of your thoughts on the issue have been debunked as the truth rolls out.”
Between 52,000 and 72,000 Texans are arrested each year for marijuana. DeMorris believes those public resources could be better used, and the lives of these people would be markedly better without the disruptions induced by prohibition.