Although several bills aimed at reforming the marijuana laws across the state of Texas were savagely beaten down earlier this year in the state legislature, recent reports indicate that a level of change is happening at the hands of local prosecutors, who have grown tired of wasting valuable resources to punishing citizens for minor pot-related offenses.
Instead of binding stoners and other enthusiastic lovers of the leaf up in the criminal justice system, forcing people caught with a little weed to spend time in jail and pay high fines, some county prosecutors are simply giving cases pertaining to the possession of marijuana the chance to repay their debt to society through probation or community service.
“The only people who do jail time for marijuana are the people who want to do jail time for marijuana,” Shannon Edmonds, who oversees governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, told the Texas Tribune.
In the report, which indicates that many of Texas’ prosecuting powers have been slapping pot offenders on the wrist for years, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said that no one busted for under an ounce of cannabis has to worry about dealing with his office. He claims that it is simply no longer viable to go after small time stoners, especially considering the cost of dragging such cases to trial.
Saenz’s attitude, in turn, at least according to statistics from the Office of Court Administration, has contributed to a near 60 percent decrease in minor marijuana court cases in Cameron County.
Earlier last year, the Harris County District Attorney’s office, which controls the chopping block for the city of Houston, introduced a pilot program called First Chance Intervention. It allows first-time offenders caught in possession of less than two ounces of marijuana to avoid the judicial hammer, that is, as long as they completed a drug awareness class or eight hours of community service.
Upon the announcement of this program, local marijuana activists argued that the plan to ease the penalties for pot offenders was a joke; a political scam aimed at earning District Attorney Devon Anderson more support at the polls in the November 2014 election.
“Houston DA didn’t decriminalize anything,” said Jason Miller, executive director of the Houston chapter of NORML, in a statement for High Times. “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.”
However, since the program began last October, the county has reportedly kept over 1,300 first-time pot offenders out of jail, with roughly 800 of those offenders already back on the streets with no criminal record. This has contributed to a 20 percent decline in Class B misdemeanor pot cases in the city of Houston, according to the Tribune.
Yet, regardless of the minute level of success in some Texas counties, the legislature remains hell bent on maintaining a broken policy. A number of attempts have been made throughout the past several years to decriminalize the possession of marijuana or, at very least, reduce the penalties associated with the offense. Unfortunately, however, those measures have continued to be struck down by the states’ ultra-conservative legislators.
A report published several years ago indicates that somewhere around 97 percent of all marijuana arrests in Texas are the result of possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, a Class B Misdemeanor punishable with 180 days in jail and a fine up to $2,000. In spite of what local prosecutors are currently boasting, Texas is considered one of the leading pot prosecuting states in America, arresting more than 74,000 people for minor possession in 2010, according to the ACLU, which led to expenditures of over $250 million.
So, while we applaud those Texas prosecutors that have made an effort to diminish the number of pot offenders they throw to the wild eyed beast of the criminal justice system, a complete overhaul of the state’s policies regarding the cannabis plant are needed before anyone is truly safe.
Rather than pussyfoot with half-measures for pot offenses, several cities across the United States, including New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, have opted to simply decriminalize the possession of marijuana. All of these places have since reported a significant decrease in small time pot arrests, as well as an overall savings of millions of dollars to their respective municipalities.