Since Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot took office promising to reform the way prosecutors treat low-level marijuana offenses, the number of marijuana cases local police referred to the DA's office for prosecution has declined sharply, according to a recent report from the SMU Dedman School of Law.
Budding Change - Marijuana Prosecution Policies and Police Practices in Dallas County, 2019
, was a first look at how policies set by prosecutors affect the way police handle marijuana cases, wrote Pamela R. Metzger, director of the school's Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center. "Overall, in 2019, police referred 31% fewer misdemeanor marijuana cases than they did in 2018," Metzger wrote in the report's executive summary.
"As compared to 2018, almost all municipal police agencies in Dallas County reduced their marijuana arrest volumes in 2019," Metzger continued. "In 2018, 23 municipal departments made 6,620 arrests that they sent to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. In 2019, 21 of those agencies reduced their respective arrest volumes by at least 11%"
Policies from Creuzot's office combined with a new state law and changes in how Dallas police treat minor marijuana cases contributed further to the drop.
“I wouldn’t take it for granted that police do respond to these things," Metzger told the Observer
. "I think it takes police who are willing to think and engage in the ideas about change in our legal system.”
Marijuana law was a key issue during Creuzot’s run for DA, and one of his campaign promises was to decrease prosecution of first-time offenders. In February 2019, he sent a letter to all of the county’s police departments saying his office would not prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases for first offenses.
That didn't bar police from making the arrests, however, raising a question over how police would respond. The DA isn't chief of police, and cops traditionally have been resistant to marijuana reform. In the six months after Creuzot's letter, however, police referrals for these offenses fell by 24% compared with 2018.
Texas legislators' decision to legalize hemp farming in 2019 led to a further drop. Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1325 legalizing hemp
, which is identical to illegal cannabis except it has only tiny amounts of THC, the component of marijuana that gets users high. Hemp is grown for its fiber and as a source of CBD, a chemical that has won acceptance as a benign, natural treatment for a number of illnesses.
To distinguish legal hemp from illegal weed requires police to either spark up a bowl themselves, which is fun to imagine but illegal, or seek a lab test that takes time and, most important, money. Creuzot adjusted his policies accordingly. He would no longer prosecute marijuana offenses if the police didn’t turn in a lab report as evidence the substance was illegal.
These tests can cost over $200. Without them, prosecutors run the risk of charging people for possessing legal hemp products.
This move resulted in another decrease in referrals from police. According to the report, between July 22 and Dec. 31, 2019, referrals for marijuana cases fell by 46%.
In 2019, DPD marijuana arrests and citations accounted for half of the referrals sent to the DA’s office for prosecution, so this downward trend could continue. The city of Dallas and its police department have taken steps to relax the enforcement of marijuana laws.
In 2017, the Dallas City Council adopted a cite-and-release program that allowed officers at their own discretion to issue misdemeanor tickets to anyone caught with 4 ounces or less of cannabis. Its effect at first was small. Following the change, 85% of drug arrests were for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana, according to a report presented to the Community Police Oversight Board. Black people make up nearly a quarter of the city’s population but account for 57% of pot possession arrests, the board found.
This is why City Council member Adam Bazaldua proposed decriminalizing low-level pot possession last September. This year, that effort was taken over by Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia
, who changed the department’s general orders regarding possession cases. Just in time for 4/20, DPD announced it was done charging people for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. If there are any signs of intent to distribute, if the suspect has more than 2 ounces of weed or a firearm or if there's a companion charge for a crime against another person, police will still make an arrest.
So far this year, Dallas County law enforcement agencies have filed 1,961 Class B and Class A misdemeanor possession cases with the DA's office. Many of those, Creuzot said, came before DPD changed its rules.
"The decline we have seen over the past few years in marijuana possession arrests shows that the criminal justice community can analyze what it's doing and change when needed," Creuzot said in a statement to the Observer
. "I expect that trend to continue."
Metzger expects to see a similar trend with other low-level offenses. “When you hear Chief Garcia say things like ‘That’s not what my officers are here for,’ I think it’s not just going to be with marijuana,” she said.
Once people understand that prosecuting for small amounts of weed drains public resources, she said, it’s only a matter of time before they realize prosecuting other low-level offenses, like trespassing or drunken disorderly conduct, does the same thing.
“I think, and I hope, it’s inevitable that we realize that those kinds of enforcement patterns have not made us safer,” she said. “They’ve made us poorer, but they have not made us safer.”