Some day, in the very far distant future, Texas may take a cue from Colorado and legalize marijuana. For now, it's taking some very hesitant first steps toward decriminalization, such as a proposal last legislative session reduce possession of an ounce or less of weed from a class B to a class C misdemeanor -- basically a traffic ticket.
But police and prosecutors already have an option for keeping low-level marijuana offenders out of jail. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed a law allowing police to implement a "cite and release" policy for marijuana possession and a handful of other class A and B misdemeanors like graffiti and driving without a license.
Before, those suspects would automatically be hauled off to the county jail. Under the new law, officers could write them a ticket and order them to appear before a judge.
Joe Ptak of Texans Smart on Crime says the benefits are obvious. Arresting fewer low-level drug offenders means more jail space and lower costs. In Hays County (San Marcos), where he lives, Ptak says the policy kept officials from having to build a bigger jail.
Just as important, Ptak says, is that it "keeps police on the street looking for real criminals." Assuming a one-hour booking process and factoring in travel time to and from the jail, arresting a pot smoker can occupy a police officer for two or three hours.
And yet only a handful of counties -- Travis, Midland, Bastrop, Caldwell, Brewster, Hays, and maybe a couple of others -- got around to adopting cite and release. Harris, Dallas, and Tarrant counties (i.e. the state's three largest) did not.
Ptak cites a couple of main reasons the policy wasn't more widely adopted. The law didn't do a good job of establishing how police departments, judges and prosecutors, all of whom have to be on board for cite and release to work, might coordinate their efforts. Throw in a healthy dose of politics -- he blames the absence of Harris County on a feud between the district attorney and sheriff -- and it turns into what Ptak describes as a "three-legged stool" of bureaucracy.
It's not clear why Dallas hasn't adopted cite-and-release (Dallas PD spokesman Max Geron is checking for us, as is Dallas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Carmen Castro), just that it hasn't.
With 6,284 misdemeanor pot possession cases filed in Dallas County in 2013 -- an average of 17 arrests per day -- it seems like a no-brainer.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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