In Houston, Texas, anyone caught with up to two ounces of marijuana will avoid going to jail if they volunteer to complete a diversion program. However, this policy is about to be expanded under Harris County's new district attorney.
As of March 1, anyone in Harris County, which is the third largest county in the U.S. and includes the city of Houston, caught with less than four ounces of weed will not be sent to jail or even fined. Instead, offenders need to agree to attend a drug education class within 90 days."You will be offered a chance to sign an acknowledgment form promising to take a decision-making class, a cognitive decision-making class. Takes four hours and costs $150. You'll be required to do that within 90 days," Ogg explained during a press conference held at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, as cited by Houston Public Media.
Police officers are required to confiscate the weed and make a report to ensure the cannabis-carrier goes to the class. If the offender fails to attend the drug education course, they will be subject to arrest. Someone caught selling marijuana, possessing in a drug-free zone, on probation, or in the act of committing another crime are not eligible for the Harris County marijuana decriminalization program.
While campaigning for the DA position last year, Kim Ogg made her position clear on marijuana decriminalization. She advocated for a cannabis program that "would still hold people accountable," yet still allow offenders to attend school, go to work, and do "simple things that everybody needs."
Ms. Ogg got the DA job and went to work changing the marijuana decriminalization program right away. She teamed up with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Art Acevedo, and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales to develop the new rules.
"What matters most to the people of Houston isn't somebody with a baggy of marijuana, what matters most to them is what's going on with burglaries of our residences, burglaries of our vehicles, armed robbery, sexual assaults," said Acevedo, according to the Houston Public Media article. "We are going to focus on being smart on crime, focused on crime."
The new DA noted in her announcement of the marijuana decriminalization rules that similar programs have been tried in other cities and proven successful. The program will be monitored and changed as needed, she added.
Currently, Harris County spends over $26 million a year on marijuana cases and nearly 12,000 people end up in court for weed misdemeanors. Ogg wants these numbers reduced under the new cannabis rules. The DA believes marijuana decriminalization will save the county $10 million, countless law enforcement hours, and keep thousands out of the court system.While Harris County and Houston officials think marijuana decriminalization will bring tremendous benefits, some still oppose the idea.
"Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers, I swore an oath to follow the law – all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature," said Brett Ligon, Montgomery County's district attorney, as reported by Merry Jane. "I don't get to pick and choose which laws I enforce."
The National Organization for Reformed Marijuana Laws (NORML), a weed legalization advocate group, says Harris County decriminalizing marijuana is a sign "that prohibition is coming to an end." This is "fantastic news" for everyone as police and the court system will no longer be bogged down with small cannabis possession cases.
Texas is one of 22 states that has not legalized marijuana statewide. Under current state laws, possession of fewer than four ounces of cannabis is a misdemeanor. If the Harris County marijuana decriminalization program is successful, it may lead the way to softer state laws, possibly even marijuana legalization. Several new cannabis bills have already been introduced in the state's legislature this session.
[Featured Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]