Marijuana decriminalized


Image Courtesy of @HarrisCountyDAO / Twitter

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, introduced her Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program at the Harris County Justice Criminal Justice Center on Feb. 16. The program will go into effect on March 1.

Alyssa Foley, News Editor

A new program effectively decriminalizes minor marijuana possession in Harris County.

Under the program, qualifying individuals who are caught with less than four ounces of marijuana can take a four-hour drug and decision making class and avoid arrest, jail and a criminal record.

This does not make minor marijuana possession legal, it just means that offenders in Harris County will not receive a criminal record.

District Attorney Kim Ogg announced the new Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program on Feb. 16. The program will go into effect on March 1.

When the new pre-charge diversion program is in effect, a law enforcement officer will simply confiscate the marijuana and keep documentation of the encounter. Since there is no arrest, the individual will not receive an arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents regarding the offense.

A criminal charge will be filed if the person does not complete the $150 class within 90 days. Regardless of their criminal history, repeat offenders will be eligible to be diverted through the program multiple times.

The only exceptions are if an individual is currently on probation, on bond or deferred adjudication, in a penal institution or correctional facility or has been caught in a school zone. Anyone under the age of 18 is not eligible for this new program but will be processed through the juvenile justice system and able to use existing juvenile diversion programs.

Officials say that more than 107,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, and this proposal would keep about 12 thousand people a year out of the already overloaded court system.

According to the DA, Harris County has spent about $25 million a year for the past 10 years prosecuting and jailing people for misdemeanor marijuana offenses. Ogg believes that’s far too many tax dollars being spent, “prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety.”

City Council Member Dwight Boykins said that “The goal of this program is to ensure that the resources needed for court and jail are being used to effectively increase public safety and acknowledge that those in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana are not stigmatized by criminal records that limit their employment, education and housing opportunities.”

The program will affect every law enforcement agency in Harris County since they rely on the DA’s office to prosecute criminal cases.

The Houston chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws praised the new program.

“Law enforcement should focus on protecting our communities instead of wasting their resources arresting people and ruining their lives over a misdemeanor amount of cannabis,” said Houston NORML Executive Director Cara Bonin in a press release.

Neighboring Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon criticized the plan at a press conference. “No one has the right to choose to disregard the laws of the state of Texas,” said Ligon, “As the elected district attorney, you’ve got one job and that’s to enforce the laws. If you want to change the laws, then run for state rep or state senator.”

Democratic Ogg beat incumbent Republican District Attorney Devon Anderson back in November after campaigning on promises of reform, including reducing the arrests for minor drug offenses.