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Marijuana diversions

Good progress so far. What can we do to build on it?

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office estimated on Friday that it’s saved $35 million and arrested 14,000 fewer people since the start of a program to divert low-level marijuana offenses.

The announcement marked the two-year anniversary of the initiative, which allows misdemeanor anyone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana to avoid an arrest, ticket or court appearances if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class.

“We know we have reduced the arrest rate,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a news conference Friday morning. “That gives law enforcement more time to answer serious calls.”

The initiative launched in early 2017 was one of Ogg’s first steps to reform, earning her accolades among criminal justice reformers and marijuana activists. Since then, the program has expanded to include parolees and defendants on probation – but still some experts have questioned whether the initiative, and Ogg’s office, could go further.

“Compared to past district attorneys in Harris County, Kim Ogg’s record looks promising,” said criminal justice expert Scott Henson, with the nonprofit Just Liberty. “Compared to so-called ‘progressive’ district attorneys at the national level like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she looks very moderate.”

Before the program started, Harris County law enforcement agencies typically filed around 10,000 misdemeanor weed cases per year, officials said Friday. Since the program began, that number has dropped to about 3,000 people per year.

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[HPD Misdemeanor Division Chief Nathan] Beedle suggested that Ogg’s office isn’t getting enough credit for the progressive shift in marijuana prosecutions, but reformers like Henson have advocated for dropping marijuana prosecutions across the board – whether or not the would-be arrestee successfully completes an education class.

“In a time when 10 states have already legalized fully, I think that marijuana diversion is probably looked at as less aggressively reformist than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago,” Henson said. “I mean, Greg Abbott thinks it should be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. So she’s not that far out of line with centrist opinion.”

I’m not as inclined to give Abbott credit for his belief. Nothing has passed the Lege yet, and Dan Patrick remains a significant obstacle to any reforms. It’s good that Abbott himself isn’t an obstacle, but let’s hold off on the plaudits till something gets done.

That said, I take Henson’s point that while diversion has been a big change here in Harris County, it’s not on the leading edge of reformist thought anymore. So, while we can be glad for the progress that we’ve made so far, it’s fair to ask what comes next. What can we do to push these arrest numbers down further? What do we need to do to drag the more recalcitrant law enforcement agencies within the county along? What’s the next opportunity once marijuana arrests are mostly a thing of the past? These are the questions we need to be asking and answering.

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2 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    We shouldn’t be looking to police, the D.A.’s office, or other enforcement agencies to set policy, we should be looking to the federal and state legislatures to set policy, by enacting or eliminating laws.

    I predict that Trump will do his part by pushing the end of federal prohibition just in time for 2020, which will then put the onus on the states. I don’t think pot is a huge priority for police anymore, but I do think they enjoy having drug laws as a tool in their arsenal. It’s an easy gimme.

    I also predict that Texas will bring up the rear when it comes to statewide pot legalization. See: casino gambling.

  2. What the world needs is more Pot Heads. I am so excited.