Marijuana punishment change?

August 1, 2008 5:15:23 PM PDT
There was a time not so long ago when just possessing a few marijuana seeds could put the person holding them in prison for a long time. Now personal pot possession can be a misdemeanor, but it will still get you arrested at least in Harris County. Could that change though?

On one side is marijuana which is not the shocking drug it once was. Possession of a small amount is now considered a misdemeanor crime in Texas.

On the other side are overcrowded jails which are certainly an issue in Harris County. That's why the legislature approved the option of issuing tickets to people caught with less than four ounces of pot rather than putting them in jail.

Since last year, Travis County has started writing pot citations and Colorado and Dallas County are about to begin. Harris County is not exercising the option. People caught with four ounces or less of marijuana are still taken to jail. In 2000, there were 6,737 arrests, last year there were 9,790.

A marijuana policy group places the cost of each arrest at $2,000 dollars.

It might not have been a campaign issue before, but among those who could change policy it is now. Clarence Bradford who is the democratic candidate for Harris County District Attorney supports the citation policy.

"I think we can save jail space for violent offenders who pose a threat to the community," said Bradford. "Make sure we have space for those people and give proper identification on the people we give tickets to."

Republican DA candidate Pat Lykos is open to the possibility.

"I don't want to ruin somebody's life because they've had possession of one marijuana cigarette so we can have deferred prosecution there," Lykos said. "But if you really want to reduce the jail population, the focus should be on the mentally ill."

Neither candidate for sheriff supports citations over arrest.

"You also have to look at it like this, you write them a citation, what are the chance they're not going to show up for court," asked Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas who is also the Republican candidate. "Then it goes to warrant. Then we have to go out and find them."

"For the message to be communicated that it's ok, it's just a ticket, then you're sending the wrong message," said Adrian Garcia who is the Democrat candidate for sheriff.

Regardless of whether a person is ticketed or arrested though, the penalty for possession of up to four ounces of marijuana remains the same, anywhere from six months to a year in jail plus a fine.

In Travis county alone, the savings in switching to the citation option is estimated to be over a million dollars a year in fuel costs and processing expenses.

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