Earlier this month, the Harris County District Attorney’s office, which oversees the Houston metro, announced the city would begin experimenting with a new pilot decriminalization program. Some call it a political smokescreen, while others say efforts to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in two of the largest cities in the state of Texas is a step in the right direction.
District Attorney Devon Anderson said that starting on Oct. 6, her office would no longer concern themselves with prosecuting non-violent individuals caught in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. The stipulation, however, is that these people must be first-time offenders, who will then be forced to choose a penalty between performing eight hours of community service or attending a drug awareness class.
“We are targeting the people we believe are self-correcting and will be ‘scared straight’ by being handcuffed and transported. Our goal is to keep these individuals from entering the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” Anderson said at a news conference.
Both the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston police will support of the program.
Unfortunately, the pilot program doesn’t hold the city of Houston accountable for how low-level pot offenders are prosecuted, which has some people considering this move to be three-legged politics. Democratic candidate Kim Ogg, who is pushing to run Anderson out of office as soon as the dust settles from the upcoming November election, argues that the district attorney is not interested in marijuana reform, only in bamboozling voters into giving her another term.
“This is not a new plan,” said Ogg. “It’s a ‘me too’ program by a candidate who has shifted her position with the winds of political change.”
Jason Miller, the executive director for the Houston chapter of NORML, is not at all impressed with Anderson’s idea of pot reform.
“Houston DA didn’t decriminalize anything,” he said in a statement. “There are more than 50+ law enforcement agencies in Harris County that will NOT be utilizing this program. It’s a ‘pilot program,’ which means that someone on one side of the street will be treated completely differently under the law than someone a block down the road.”
In the event that Ogg takes the reins as district attorney after the election, she intends to impose a measure that will treat minor pot possession as a civil offense punishable with a fine – even for repeat offenders. She believes this is the only way for the city of Houston to keep an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system, as well as save the city in the neighborhood of $10 million per year.
In Dallas, officials are planning to launch a similar pilot program at the turn of the New Year. Starting in January, anyone caught in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana will be ticketed and released instead of being charged with a Class B misdemeanor. Unfortunately, while this test tube decriminalization program will leave out the handcuffs and the police escort to jail, offenders will still be subject to a $2,000 fine and potentially 180 days in jail. However, most offenders facing imprisonment will be given the option to take part in a diversion program.
Interestingly, while Dallas County is flirting with a cite-and-release program in an attempt to save time, money and police resources, officials have actually had permission from the state legislature to do this for the past seven years. Yet, Dallas Police Chief David Brown told reporters earlier this year that he was opposed to decriminalization measures and intended to keep prosecuting stoners until the state government forced him to do otherwise.
Dallas County criminal justice director Ron Stretcher told The Dallas Observer last week that the decriminalization pilot program has been in development for the past two months and is being spearheaded by the Dallas Police Department (DPD).
“DPD came and asked us to take a look at that,” said Stretcher. “[They] wanted to kind of start it out on the marijuana cases.”
No one is certain exactly what persuaded Brown to change his mind on the issue, but many officials, including Stretcher, are encouraged about the launch of a more evolved version of the program. In 2007, Houston attempted to employ a cite-and-release program, but it simply did not have enough support from police, judges and prosecutors to be successful.
Many supporters hope the legislature will force municipalities across the state to implement more cite-and-release programs in 2015. This will allow city governments to roll out these types of pseudo-decriminalization efforts without having to endure resistance from the local courts and prosecutors. Some advocates believe pilot programs will help Texas loosen its stance on legalization, while others worry the reason behind them will be lost in translation.
What are the current cannabis regulations in your state? Do you think a pilot decriminalization program would be useful where you live? Tell us your thoughts below.