Houston stops arresting for marijuana while law enforcement shows support in Austin
Law enforcement officials spoke out against marijuana prohibition in a big way today in Texas, with an announcement that those in the Houston area would largely no longer be subject to arrest for possession, while at the state capitol several officials joined together to support a penalty reduction bill making possession a fine-only offense.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced today in Houston that those found to have four ounces or less of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed, or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class. The announcement was made with the support of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”
Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.
This would mean no charges, and no criminal record, something which often negatively affects people for life in regards to employment opportunities and rental units. The program will go into effect on March 1. Those who failure to complete the class will have charges filed against them and be prosecuted under state law. There is no limit to the number of times a person can go through this program.
Just north of Houston, Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon lashed out at Ogg’s policy the day before, calling it “mob rule.” Ligon went on to say that Texas should not legalize marijuana, which he referred to as “detrimental to society.” He added, “Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers. I swore an oath to follow the law – all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce.”
He further criticized Ogg, saying she was essentially trying to legalize marijuana, and that she should remember her role as a district attorney is to enforce the law, not make it. Prosecutors however have wide-ranging authority to use discretion in making such deals with defendants, though this would be the first program of its kind in Texas.
Meanwhile in Austin, several current and former law enforcement officials, including a retired judge, spoke out in favor of HB 81 at the capitol building as part of a coalition called Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.
Introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and co-authored by Rep. Jason Issac (R-Dripping Springs), the bill would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a fine of up to $250, and in some cases would allow defendants to perform community service rather than pay a fine. Under current Texas law, individuals found in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana can be arrested and given a criminal record, and they face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
“Arresting people for marijuana possession takes officers off the streets for hours, reducing their effectiveness,” said former Carrollton police officer Silvestre Tanenbaum. “In this time of shrinking law enforcement budgets and staffing reductions, officers need to be able to maximize their impact in our communities. Issuing citations for low-level marijuana possession can drastically reduce the manpower expense and court costs that go into prosecuting what is essentially a victimless offense. It would also enable law enforcement to build better relationships with the community it serves.”
“Texans want police on the streets protecting and serving, offenders punished sternly but fairly, and taxpayer money spent efficiently and effectively,” Moody said. “House Bill 81 does that by making personal-use possession of marijuana a civil violation instead of a crime. That frees up law enforcement resources and deals with marijuana possession firmly without branding a college kid caught with a joint as a criminal who will then have real problems getting financial aid to finish school and finding a place to live and work afterwards.”
More than two-thirds of Texans (68%) would support reducing the penalty for low-level marijuana possession to a citation and $250 fine, according to a June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Only 26% said they would be opposed.
“Every year we arrest about 60,000 people in Texas for possession of tiny amounts of marijuana,” said retired Texas District Court Judge John Delaney. “Each arrest takes about two hours of police time, not to mention the added burden on jails and courts. This diverts resources that could be spent helping victims of violence and serious property crimes. Issuing citations makes more sense. What’s more, a marijuana conviction affects a person’s ability to work and support a family for the rest of their life. No one wins; all of us lose.”
Capping off the day, U.S. Representatives in Washington, D.C. announced in a press conference the formation of a cannabis caucus, comprised of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), and Rep. Don Young (R-AK). This is the first caucus of its kind.
Recent polling by Gallup shows that 60 percent nationally support marijuana legalization,