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The Problem with Harris County’s Relaxing of Its Marijuana Laws

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Although marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use and eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Other states have decriminalized certain marijuana-possession offenses. There are numerous restrictions, of course. But some freedom is better than no freedom.

Texas is not one of these states. Partial marijuana freedom, however, has come to part of Texas, and a large part at that.

Texas has had a law since 2007 “that allows municipalities to issue written citations — effectively traffic tickets — for misdemeanor marijuana possession.” However, only a small percentage of municipalities have taken advantage of it.

Until now.

Just last month, Harris County instituted its Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program (MMDP). The program effectively decriminalizes possession of 4 ounces of marijuana or less by taking all misdemeanor marijuana cases out of the criminal justice system and redirecting low-level marijuana offenders into a four-hour drug-education and decision-making class. No arrest, no ticket, no fine, no lawyer, no court appearance, no jail time, no criminal history.

Harris County is not just any county. It is the most populous county in Texas and the third-most populous county in the United States. Its population exceeds 4.5 million. The county’s metropolitan area is the fifth-most populated in the United States. Its land area encompasses 1,777 square miles, making the county larger than the state of Rhode Island. The county seat of Harris County is Houston, the largest city in Texas and fourth-largest city in the United States.

The program was announced at a press conference on February 16 by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg with Houston’s mayor, Houston’s police chief, and Harris County’s sheriff standing by her side. It took effect on March 1. Said Ogg,

At 107,000 cases over the last ten years, we have spent in excess of $250 million dollars collectively prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety.

Additionally, the collateral damage to our workforce is immeasurable — because what we have done is we have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing, and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is in effect a minor law violation.

According to Houston’s KTRK,

  • Harris County spends approximately $26 million each year prosecuting 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases.
  • Crime labs spend $1.7 million testing evidence for those 10,000 cases.
  • On average, it takes four hours of a law-enforcement officer’s time to arrest, transport, and book a misdemeanor offender.
  • Harris County spends $13 million housing marijuana offenders, who each spend an average of 6 days in jail.
  • Low-level marijuana cases account for 10 percent of cases on Harris County court dockets.

According to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the goal of the new policy is to ensure that

(1) the limited resources of this Office, local law enforcement, and the Harris County Jail are used responsibly to increase public safety; and

(2) individuals who commit the non-violent crime of possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana are not stigmatized by a criminal record that limits their employment, education, and housing opportunities.

Someone detained for possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana is eligible to participate in the program if he is 17 or older, possesses sufficient identifying information at the time of detention or arrest according to the intervening law-enforcement agency’s policy, has no additional criminal charges arising out of the instant detention other than Class C misdemeanor tickets, has no outstanding warrants, and is not on bond, deferred adjudication, or probation for any offense other than a Class C offense. No one is eligible to participate in the MMDP if he possesses marijuana with the intent to deliver, possesses marijuana in a “drug free zone” or in a corrections facility, or is in the program already.

Eligible offenders must complete a four-hour “Cognitive Decision Making” class through the Harris County Community Corrections & Supervision Department (HCCCSD) within 90 days, pay a $150 program fee (waived if the offender is determined to be indigent), and not break the law prior to completion of the program. Those who fail to comply will face traditional arrest and charging procedures for their marijuana-possession offense.

The program is voluntary: “If the Offender does not wish to participate, the Officer shall explain that the Offender will be taken to jail, the Possession of Marijuana charge will be filed immediately, bond will be set, and the case will proceed through the courts.”

Not everyone in Texas is happy with Harris County’s new marijuana-diversion program. In neighboring Montgomery County, District Attorney Brett Ligon responded with a press release that said, “Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s press secretary said in a statement that “he does not believe that law enforcement has the discretion to choose what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore.”

But if some freedom is better than no freedom, then what is the problem with Harris County’s relaxing of its marijuana laws? I see ten of them.

First of all, possession of marijuana is still illegal in Harris County on both the federal and state levels.

Second, a Class A or B misdemeanor marijuana-possession offense is still punishable by a fine of not more than $4,000 or one year in jail or less.

Third, possession of more than four ounces of marijuana is still a criminal offense.

Fourth, other drugs are not included.

Fifth, the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department are still wasting resources carrying out the war on drugs. The war on drugs is essentially an employment program for police and sheriff departments. If the drug war were ended, half of all law-enforcement personnel positions could probably be eliminated.

Sixth, law-enforcement personnel still confiscate the marijuana of anyone who participates in the program.

Seventh, there is a $150 fee to take the required class. That means that Harris County could make a significant amount of money from the program. It gives law-enforcement personnel a greater incentive to find people in possession of marijuana than they had before the program was implemented.

Eighth, there are numerous restrictions on eligibility for the program.

Ninth, how does one accurately determine whether someone possesses marijuana with the intent to deliver?

The tenth and most important problem with the program is that it still demonizes the possession of a plant. No one’s marijuana should be confiscated and no one should have to take a class for possessing it, just as no one’s bananas should be confiscated and no one should have to take a class for possessing them.

Those are the problems with Harris County’s relaxing of its marijuana laws. Many of them are the same problems that will be found in the efforts of other counties and municipalities to do the same.

Yes, some freedom is better than no freedom; and marijuana freedom is better than no drug freedom. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the goal is total drug freedom.

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