Americans across the country have led the way in changing legislation regarding the possession and use of marijuana. Today, several states legalize the recreational use of marijuana and many others have passed laws allowing for the compassionate use of pot by individuals with medical needs. Following what many have called a failed “War on Drugs,” cities, counties, and states have also reshaped their approach to drug crimes by decriminalizing marijuana.
Decriminalization was exactly what Harris County officials had in mind when they announced a policy that began on the first of this month to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Here’s what you need to know about the new Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program:
- Possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana will no longer result in an arrest, court appearance, or jail time.
- Individuals charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession will be redirected into a decision-making class rather than the criminal justice system.
- Upon completion of the cognition decision-making course, individuals stopped with misdemeanor quantities of marijuana will have no criminal record.
- The Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program took effect in Harris County on March 1, 2017.
Harris County officials and many local residents have supported the new policy, as it is a much-anticipated departure from draconian drug crime laws that have overburdened our criminal justice system – from law enforcement to courts to our bursting jails and prisons. According to County officials, low-level marijuana cases comprise 10% of the cases on County court dockets.
By diverting these low-level, non-violent offenders who choose to use a substance that is legal in several states, decriminalized in many others, and widely discussed, accepted, and used by millions of Americans, Harris County can save substantial government funds:
- Roughly $26 million is spent annually prosecuting over 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases each year.
- Crime labs spend nearly $2 million testing evidence related to misdemeanor marijuana cases.
- The County spends $13 million per year to house individuals suspected of misdemeanor marijuana possession, who spend 6 days on average in jail.
- Law enforcement officers spend on average 4 hours to stop, investigate, arrest, transport, and book individuals suspected of misdemeanor marijuana offenses, time that costs the County and detracts from officers policing other crimes.
The rolling back of harsh drug crime approaches that fail to address an underlying issue, drain the government of much-need funds, and usher numerous people through the criminal justice system has been a nationwide trend with increasing support. Unfortunately, not all lawmakers may agree with the approach, including those in the Texas state House and Senate.
After Harris County’s new policy made news, members of state Congress quickly spoke out, many of whom condemned the policy. While the issue concerns the policing and prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses, lawmakers have appropriated the issue to debate not just drug crime laws, but also whether local jurisdictions should have discretion when it comes to enforcing laws. Their opinions revolve around the belief that policy changes should occur on a statewide level, as debate and deliberation, although it is unlikely Texas would pass similar legislation any time soon.
For some lawmakers, however, allowing local officials to have discretion in the crimes they choose to prosecute within their jurisdiction and communities makes sense. After all, these officials have been voted in by residents to voice their opinions and reflect their beliefs and sentiments. If Harris County believes they can still protect public safety, prevent low-level offenders from the burden of criminal records, use resources more efficiently, and save considerable funds in the process, some legislators believe that type of policy shift is a practical approach.
While conflicting opinions remain, the fact of the matter is that shifts in opinions and marijuana policies are growing throughout the United States, especially as we see the exorbitant costs spent on policing, prosecuting, and penalizing low-level marijuana-related crimes, and the toll criminal records can have on the lives on individuals who are arrested for low-level, nonviolent offenses. In Texas, Harris County may be leading the way to a new approach to marijuana and drug crime enforcement.
While the new policy is in effect in Harris County, is it important to remember that you can still find yourself in legal trouble for pot, especially if higher quantities are involved, allegations of more sales, trafficking, or more serious crimes are made, or for possession of marijuana in another jurisdiction. When these charges, or any other criminal allegations, are levied against you by the government, you can be confident in choosing the experienced Houston criminal defense attorneys at The Law Offices of Jed Silverman to fight on your behalf.
To discuss a case and your legal rights with an attorney, contact us for a free consultation.