HOUSTON- Changes are coming to the way people caught with marijuana are punished in Harris County.
Under the current policy, first-time offenders caught with up to two ounces of pot are able to avoid jail time through a diversion program.
During her campaign for Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg promised to expand that policy to include all misdemeanor marijuana offenders. That involves people caught with up to four ounces of the drug.
The new policy will start on March 1, allowing offenders to take a class and not receive jail time or have the misdemeanor go on their record.
Offenders must take a four-hour, $150 "Cognitive decision" class within 90 days. They will be arrested if they do not complete the course. Financial help will made available.
Ogg said the program is legal under Texas law, and that other places like Brooklyn have tried the program successfully. She added that they will monitor the program and make alterations if needed.
Those who are caught dealing, committing another crime, possessing in a drug-free zone, on bond, or on probation are not eligible for the program.
Ogg said the county spends more than $26 million per year prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases and they take up 10 percent of court dockets. It is impacts 10,000 people a year..
However, members of the National Organization for Reformed Marijuana Laws, also called NORML, are already celebrating news of reform.
“This is fantastic news for Harris County, because its showing that prohibition is coming to an end,” said Jason Miller, Houston NORML. “What we’re seeing is misdemeanor possession cases are no longer going to involve jail time, a criminal record, or an arrest. This is great for the community, because people are no longer going to be clogging up the courts and law enforcement resources with small possession cases. These are people who haven’t done anything wrong.”
Others disagree, arguing people caught with marijuana are breaking the law.
Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez worries not enforcing the rules tells criminals they can get away with a little more in this county.
“[DA Kim Ogg] can choose to prosecute a dope dealer or not prosecute a dope dealer, but the consequences of not doing that will be borne by the tax payers, you and me,” said Sanchez. “If burglary and crime increases in Harris County by virtue of this decision, I guess that will be a political decision that comes up in a little over three years.”
One thing both sides agree on is lasting change has to happen at the state level. Several marijuana bills have been introduced in Austin this session.
“Local policies can have a tremendous impact on that, because we can show that this works,” said Miller.
They disagree about whether reform will happen in Texas anytime soon.
“A lot of what Harris County tries to do sometimes is undone by the state legislature. If the penal code is amended, which I think is the proper place to make these changes, let state lawmakers make those decisions,” said Sanchez.
On the eve of Ogg's big announcement, Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon issued a stern admonition to the Harris County DA.
"Sometimes it's the role of a single DA in a small county in the state of Texas to say not in Montgomery County, you don't speak for the entire state of Texas," said Ligon.
Ligon said DA's have one job.
"The role of the district attorney isn't to change the laws, the role of the district attorney is to enforce it," said Ligon.
He pointed to marijuana decriminalization flyers where Ogg, HPD Chief Art Acevedo and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez are all featured as proof Ogg may be going too far.
"I don't know what she plans on proposing, but am I saying this, when you have posters that are popping up in Austin where you've got the DA, the police chief and the sheriff all pushing for legalization of marijuana or a whole scale ignoring of the law, then that's mob rule," said Ligon.
Ligon said it's up to Texas lawmakers to change marijuana laws and policy. So whatever is announced tomorrow, it's likely Montgomery County won't be following suit.
"If you don't want to enforce the laws of the state of Texas then of all places don't run for district attorney, don't seek an appointment as chief of police, or run for sheriff of the largest county in the state of Texas." said Ligon.
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