HIGH TIME FOR A CHANGE
The Decriminalization of Marijuana in Harris County
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 [email protected]calaw.com.