A new marijuana policy from Harris County could set the tone for Texas to pass more widespread decriminalization at a state level.
Newly elected District Attorney Kim Ogg ran on a campaign platform of reducing penalties for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, and she is sticking to her word. She announced the new policy during a press conference Thursday with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Policer Chief Art Acevedo, and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
Kim Ogg, Harris County district attorney
The Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program takes effect on March 1, 2017, and will mean that anyone caught with up to four ounces of cannabis will no longer face criminal or civil charges. Instead, offenders will be diverted from the court system if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class. Repeat offenders could continue to take the class, regardless of any past criminal history.
If the suspect does not agree to take the class, officials will file charges and issue an arrest warrant, which means an offender could face up to a $4,000 fine and up to one year in jail if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.
Ogg has faced criticism for the new policy, most notably from Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon who accused the new DA of trying to legalize cannabis.
“Despite a rise in violent crime rates in Harris County, Ms. Ogg chooses to focus her attention on the issue of legalization of marijuana,” Ligon stated in a press release.
It’s true that there has been a rise in violent crime in Houston over the past year, and, in fact, the violent crime rate over the last five years has consistently been more than twice the national average. Ogg acknowledged these statistics during her campaign as playing a large part in the reason for her newly revamped marijuana policy.
“Gangs and organized crime are running rampant in Harris County, and I want law enforcement to have the time and money necessary to dismantle those operations,” Ogg said in a statement on her campaign site. “Every time they arrest someone in possession of marijuana, police are off the streets for an average of four hours.”
Cannabis prosecution in Texas is costly, time-consuming, and offers almost no return on investment.
Harris County by the numbers
- The county spent $13,187,000 incarcerating cannabis offenders
- Offenders spent an average of six days in jail
- $4,780,000 was spent by the district attorney’s office to prosecute these offenses
- There were approximately 10,000 cannabis-related cases
- $2,970,000 in total court costs
- $2,552,00 was spent on defendant’s lawyer fees
- $1,790,000 was spent by state crime labs testing cannabis
- $1,384,000 was spent on law enforcement costs
It’s not the first time a marijuana diversion program has been enacted in Harris County.
Former Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced the First Chance Intervention Program on October 1, 2014, but it had a rocky start. It was not until January 1, 2016 that it became mandatory for law enforcement to offer suspects the option of community service rather than jail time.
The two programs differ notably, but carry the same end-goal: lower cannabis arrests and law enforcement costs.
The First Chance program required that offenders have no criminal history, no outstanding warrants, or be out on bond or on probation, and they must complete eight hours of community service or attend an eight-hour class. Offenders must also stay out of trouble for the next 60 to 90 days and pay a $100 fee.
The Misdemeanor Marijuana Program, on the other hand, allows repeat offenders the option of taking a four-hour class, but also requires that offenders not be out on bond or on probation. Offenders must pay a $150 fee for the class, but this fee may be waived if they are unable to afford it.
The First Chance program was fairly successful, sparing 2,270 participants from potential jail time and the rate of reoffenders was low, between six and seven percent.
Under the Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program, the county could save millions of dollars and prevent up to 12,000 people from facing jail time. Ogg estimated that the county has spent an average of $25 million per year for the last decade prosecuting cannabis cases.
“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,” said Ogg. “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.”
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