- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2017

First-time offenders caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana will no longer be arrested, ticketed or asked to appear in court when a new pot policy announced Thursday takes effect next month in Harris County, Texas.

Effective March 1, individuals caught in the region with small amounts of marijuana will be given the opportunity to attend a 4-hour drug education class in lieu of going to jail or going before a judge, local officials announced at a press conference.

Harris and Houston are ranked in the top five with regards to the nation’s most-populous counties and cities, respectively, and are home to roughly 4.5 million people. The enforcement of existing marijuana laws has imposed a substantial cost on the county and its residents alike, however, all the while without yielding any “tangible public safety benefit,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at Thursday’s conference.

The new “Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program” will apply to individuals 17 and older who are caught with less than 4 ounces of pot and aren’t facing any additional charges, county and city law enforcement officials said in a statement.

The rule change will broaden a current Harris County policy that has allowed first-time offenders caught with 2 ounces or less of pot to avoid jail time by taking classes, Houston’s KHOU News reported.

Ms. Ogg told reporters Thursday that Harris County has spent an average of $25 million each year during the last decade enforcing existing marijuana laws, and indicated that law enforcement could spend the money more wisely on other endeavors.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

Individuals accused of buying or selling weed, committing another crime or possessing pot in a drug-free zone or while on probation will still be eligible for arrest, as will those caught skipping the $150 drug class. 

“The sky will not fall,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said Thursday in support of the policy. “There are already critics out there. We’ve been down this path before with my old department. Rather than see an uptick in crime, in the city of Austin we reduced violent crime between 2007 and 2014 by 40 percent.”

While more than two dozen states have legalized weed for either medical or recreational use, the Lone Star state isn’t one of them. Needless to say, Thursday’s announcement wasn’t universally well-received and was outright denounced by the district attorney of neighboring Montgomery County.

“Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers,” District Attorney Brett Ligon said Thursday. “I swore an oath to follow the law — all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce.”

Harris County has handled more than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases during the last decade, according to officials.

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