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by TERRI LANGFORD

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers may be reluctant to ease up on punishing small-time pot smokers, but local prosecutors across the state are increasingly looking for ways to keep two-bit toking cases from clogging court dockets and wasting resources.

This past session, seven bills that would have reduced criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession went up in smoke. But some county prosecutors are already choosing to pass on even filing charges when it comes to small pot possession cases, or looking for ways to divert recreational users to probation or community service programs.

Some have been doing so for years.

“The only people who do jail time for marijuana are the people who want to do jail time for marijuana,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

A little over two years ago, for instance, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz made the call that any marijuana case involving less than one-third of an ounce would never see the inside of a prosecutor’s office.

“I’m not condoning it,” Saenz said of marijuana use. But prosecuting someone over such a small amount of dope just doesn’t make any sense, he said, considering how many police officers and court personnel must work to get that case to trial. All of that effort, for what is now a Class B misdemeanor.

“If I’ve got a hundred bucks to spend, I don’t want to spend $10 for having a joint,” Saenz said. “It’s not good business.”

The result is much-needed relief for court personnel. According to the Office of Court Administration, there’s been a 57 percent drop in misdemeanor marijuana court filings for Cameron County.

Edmonds said there’s no data on exactly how many prosecutors statewide are taking a similar approach.

But many district attorneys try to weed out these minor, nonviolent offenses to keep their court dockets moving by diverting first-time offenders to probation, reducing court costs. If defendants comply with the local jurisdiction’s requirements – which can include holding down a job, a hefty community service component and regular check-ins with a probation office — then the charges are usually dismissed.

“There’s almost no value to the state [prosecutors] or the defense to try a Class B marijuana case,” Edmonds said.

Last October in Houston, the Harris County district’s attorney office rolled out its First Chance Intervention Program in an attempt to break the logjam of roughly 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana filings that hit the historically jammed dockets of Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, which have the feel of a very crowded airport.

“It’s a mess, period,” said Jeff McShan, spokesman for the Harris County DA’s office. “And marijuana was a big problem with that.”

First-time marijuana offenders who opt for First Chance can avoid being charged if they successfully complete eight hours of community service or an eight-hour class, along with regular check-ins with a probation officer.

By April 30, 1,355 first time marijuana offenders took Harris County up on the offer, and so far 767 people have completed the program. Another 415 are still in it, and 128 did not finish.

Already, the impact is being felt on Harris County’s docket.

For the first six months of this current fiscal year, there has been a 20 percent drop in Class B marijuana cases filed in Harris County, compared with the same period for 2014.

Saenz, the Cameron County DA, said he had hoped formally reducing penalties for small-time marijuana use would be one thing the Legislature accomplished this year. “It was one of the few things I agreed with,” he said.

TERRI LANGFORD reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

COVER: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by TODD WISEMAN/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

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5 thoughts on “In pockets of Texas, prosecutors just say no to marijuana prosecutions

  1. “Marijuana has been the object of scorn and derision for nearly a century. Nicknamed ‘the evil weed,’ it has been the target of hysterical, multibillion dollar eradication campaigns intended to destroy the plant and eliminate its use. Yet it endures. Marijuana consumption is more popular than it has ever been. Drug warriors continue trying to persuade the public that marijuana is a dangerous substance, but their task is getting increasingly difficult as science uncovers more data about how marijuana really affects the body. After decades of unsupported fear-mongering, careful scientific research is now showing that marijuana is actually very good for our health. We now know that marijuana is not a gateway to drug addiction or illness. What the latest research makes clear is that, if marijuana is a gateway to anything, it is a gateway to health. Marijuana is beginning to emerge from under a cloud of contempt because it has been at the center of one of the most exciting and under-appreciated developments in biological science in recent times. Research on its psychological effects led directly to the discovery of a new chemical signaling system in the human body which is now recognized as playing a crucial role in regulating our neurology and physiology. It is becoming increasingly clear that this biological communication and regulatory system also powerfully affects the development and progression of numerous illnesses, especially cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. In the context of the last hundred years of propaganda and prohibition, it is both ironic and amusing that this system never would have been discovered had it not been for the widespread ‘recreational’ use of marijuana. The discovery of this profoundly important biological regulatory system—this new understanding of how our vital mental and physical functions work and remain in balance—arose from the search to find out how marijuana gets people high.”

    Werner, Clint (2012-02-11). Marijuana Gateway to Health: How Cannabis Protects Us from Cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease (Kindle Locations 92-94). Dachstar Press. Kindle Edition.

  2. Here’s an idea, why not legalize cannabis. Oh, heaven forbid people own their own bodies. If you believe in freedom, you cannot be a prohibitionist.

  3. This seeded plant is mentioned on the first page of THE BIBLE from the word of GOD that these plants are GOOD and put here for man to use…
    Prohibitionists are trolls who only will let you have your way if you pay them first…which means the corporations want all the money that would have gone to buying hemp products over the last 100 years…aspirin, lumber, paper, oil, rope, etc…

  4. Stop voting Republican people, and then this unjust, illogical Marijuana policy will change in Texas. How many more people’s lives have to be ruined until we realize the Texas Republican party needs to be stamped out of existence?

  5. “The only people who do jail time for marijuana are the people who want to do jail time for marijuana,”

    If you go into their diversion programs you get into a near impossible situation where you end up being in violation of probation and then you are no longer in prison on pot charges but instead are in prison on probation violation charges. It’s a big lie.

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