HIGH TIME FOR A CHANGE

The De­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Mar­i­juana in Har­ris County

Public News (Houston) - - FRONT PAGE - by Matt DeLuca matt@mattdelu­calaw.com

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a grow­ing ac­cep­tance in the United States to­ward mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion and use. And while only a few states have ac­tu­ally le­gal­ized mar­i­juana, many oth­ers states have re­laxed the en­force­ment of laws against pos­ses­sion. And now Hous­ton is join­ing in with the trend to­ward de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana.

Last year, the Har­ris County Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice im­ple­mented a pi­lot pro­gram that fo­cused on tick­et­ing peo­ple who were caught with small amounts of mar­i­juana, rather than jail­ing them. The pro­gram was said to have been suc­cess­ful, and last Thurs­day, Devon An­der­son, the elected Repub­li­can Har­ris County Dis­trict At­tor­ney an­nounced a broad­en­ing of the pro­gram, which she pre­dicted would be a “huge cul­tural change for Har­ris County.”

Start­ing on Jan­uary 1, 2016, An­der­son an­nounced that it will be­come manda­tory that any po­lice of­fi­cer in Har­ris County who catches a “first time of­fender” with less than two ounces of mar­i­juana release the per­son rather than take them to jail. If the per­son agrees to per­form a small amount of com­mu­nity ser­vice or at­tend a class, the crim­i­nal charges will never be filed and the per­son will never have to ap­pear in court.

The pro­gram is de­signed to solve two sep­a­rate is­sues in Har­ris County. First, the pro­gram is de­signed to help the per­son ar­rested. In the past, some­one who was ar­rested for pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana would have gone to jail, hope that fam­ily or friends could bail them out of jail, hire a lawyer, and ap­pear in court. And in Texas, if con­victed of pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana, one is sub­ject to a pun­ish­ment of up to 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, ad­di­tional court costs, and even a driver’s li­cense sus­pen­sion. And per­haps worst of all, the per­ma­nent crim­i­nal con­vic­tion on a per­son’s record could keep some­one from many fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties. Sec­ond, the pro­gram is de­signed to save time, money, and re­sources for the county. It should free up jail space by not crowd­ing it with non­vi­o­lent peo­ple. It should also al­low po­lice of­fi­cers to con­cen­trate on more se­ri­ous crimes in Hous­ton.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, this seems to be a step in the right di­rec­tion for the DA’s of­fice. I don’t be­lieve that a first time of­fender should be la­beled a crim­i­nal for life for sim­ply possessing some­thing that is le­gal in other parts of the coun­try. But I also see a po­ten­tial prob­lem with rush­ing some­one into this pro­gram be­fore that per­son has had an op­por­tu­nity to speak to an at­tor­ney, and be­fore a judge has ac­tu­ally seen the ev­i­dence. Did the of­fi­cer have prob­a­ble cause to legally stop your ve­hi­cle or search you? And since the agree­ment will have to be made be­fore any crime lab tests the sub­stance con­fis­cated, was the sub­stance even mar­i­juana in the first place? Over­all, the pro­gram should be a pos­i­tive thing for Har­ris County. DA An­der­son is also said to be con­sid­er­ing al­low­ing re­peat mar­i­juana of­fend­ers into the pro­gram, as well as a sim­i­lar pro­gram for first time shoplifters.

What do you think about this newly im­ple­mented pro­gram? Should po­lice of­fi­cers en­force the laws of Texas even as they re­late to mar­i­juana? Should mar­i­juana be le­gal­ized com­pletely? Please let me know your thoughts by e-mail­ing me at matt@mattdelu­calaw.com.

Matt DeLuca

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