Texas residents have recently been coming around to the idea that carrying small amounts of pot shouldn’t be a crime. Houston’s current district attorney Kim Ogg announced in this year that she would no longer prosecute cases involving small amounts of marijuana, instead recommending a diversion program that would prevent a criminal record. DA Nico LaHood also announced a policy in Bexar County that would be more lenient on marijuana charges. And Nueces County DA Mark Gonzalez — of the “not guilty” chest tattoo — substituted jail time with a $250 fine.
Dallas is now the most recent Texas town to draft a policy known as “cite-and-release,” which would prevent police officers from arresting people caught with less than four ounces of marijuana and no prior convictions. Instead, those folks would get a summons to appear in court; the penalty would not change. (Texas has very strict anti-marijuana laws — those caught with two ounces can be charged a fine of up to $2000 and six months in jai, and it gets more punitive from there.) But now that policy is in jeopardy.
The Dallas City Council approved the policy, which was supposed to begin on October 1. But from the beginning, the change lacked law enforcement support. Last year, the City Council voted against a similar resolution thanks to the lobbying efforts of then-Police Chief David Brown. The Council’s goal, then as now, was to reduce the jail population and save police officer’s time.
This time, while law enforcement stayed in the background, the measure was largely supported by the faith community and council members who argued that marijuana prosecutions had a disproportionate effect on the poor.Then the Dallas County Commissioners Court delayed approving the funding for the program. According to the Dallas Morning News, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price objected, raising concerns that because the County had not yet approved the policy, it would be implemented unevenly in Dallas County. The policy would only apply to the city of Dallas, not the county of Dallas, which includes over 20 other municipalities.
Nor has District Attorney Faith Johnson given the program her full-fledged support. “If you all don’t think cite and release is something that ought to happen because you don’t think it’s fair for everybody — since it’s not in Desoto and not in Duncanville — then vote it down.” She has also been adamant that she would not implement her own policy, like Ogg and Lahood. “I’m not here to legislate,” she said. She argued that cities should decide for themselves how they want to enforce marijuana possession laws. Johnson has reportedly agreed to allow those arrested for marijuana possession to be released without requiring a cash bond, which would help alleviate the burden on bail on those who can least afford it. But, as with catch-and-release, those people would still be subject to the same criminal sanctions.
Johnson justified her position by saying that she did not want to make law, nor did she want to create a situation where some people in Dallas County are treated differently than others. Her ideas, however, run contrary to the views of many of her fellow DA’s in Texas. Ogg and Gonzalez both created their own initiatives to decriminalize marijuana (pocketing the fines for the own offices as they go). Johnson could well decide to do the same by creating a diversion program. There’s nothing to prevent her from doing so. And this far, her office has been unclear how progressive it wants to be.
Johnson, Dallas County’s first female Black DA, ran on a platform of fairness and relatively progressive criminal justice policies, mostly supported by her largely faith-based backing. But she has continued to prosecute marijuana cases involving possession of less than two ounces of bud (the amount covered by the proposed Dallas regulation). According to the County’s records, over 400 people were arrested in September 2017 just for possessing under 2 ounces; a handful are registered in the system as officially homeless.
Despite Jeff Session’s best effort to bring back the marijuana boogieman, over a half dozen states have legalized recreational marijuana and almost 30 states have legalized medical marijuana to some degree. Many other places, both red and blue, have decriminalized marijuana. For example, this month Atlanta’s city council voted to make the penalty of possessing an ounce of marijuana a $75 fine.
“Catch-and-release” isn’t the same as decriminalization, and it’s certainly not legalization, which no jurisdiction in Texas has proposed. But the fact that a city like Dallas is even considering lightening the punishment for weed is a sign of the national acknowledgement that pot is now longer the harbinger of doom that it was made out to be by racist policy makers in the 1930s. The Texas legislature has considered bills to decriminalize marijuana, although Governor Greg Abbott has been steadfast in asserting that it will not happen under his watch, even for medical purpose.
The Dallas City Council is voting on the cite-and-release measure tomorrow.
This post has been updated with the following comment from Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson:
The authority to cite and release is given to the peace officer who is charging the person, pursuant to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article. 14.06(c). Additionally, the District Attorney’s Office does not have the authority to force individual cities to adopt a Cite and Release policy. Because the City of Dallas voted to implement Cite and Release within their city, my office is committed to working with our law enforcement partners within the Dallas Police Department as well as the county, to help implement the program in Dallas, if the County Commissioners vote in favor of it. My office and I have been and will continue to be supportive of Cite and Release for those law enforcement agencies that choose to participate in it. We will help do whatever we can to make it a success.