HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A new policy goes into effect today for people caught with misdemeanor amounts of marijuana in Harris County.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced the new marijuana policy earlier this month. She says it will save the county millions of dollars and free up resources to focus on prosecuting violent crimes.
The new Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program, which takes effect on March 1, 2017, will divert all misdemeanor marijuana cases -- involving up to four ounces -- out of the criminal justice system, instead redirecting low-level drug offenders into a decision-making class.
Harris County marijuana prosecution by the numbers
- Harris County spends approximately $26 million each year prosecuting 10,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases
- Crime labs spend $1.7 million testing evidence for those 10,000 cases
- On average, it takes four hours of a law enforcement officer's time to arrest, transport and book a misdemeanor offender
- Harris County spends $13 million housing marijuana offenders, who each spend an average of 6 days in jail
- Low-level marijuana cases account for 10 percent of cases on Harris County court dockets
When a suspect is involved in a drug stop, the law enforcement officer executing the stop will advise the suspect of the program and eligibility. The officer will contact Ogg's office to ensure that the stop is lawful and ensure that the suspect qualifies. Eligible suspects will then sign an acknowledgement form and agree to take a "cognitive decision making class" within 90 days.
Provided that the suspect completes the four-hour course, he or she will walk away from the incident with no criminal record. Crime labs will not be required to test any evidence seized, which will be destroyed upon completion of the course.
Offenders in correctional facilities and drug-free zones around schools and those bound by probation, bond or other deferred adjudication agreements will not be eligible for the program and will still be prosecuted as normal.
Ogg and other county officials in attendance reiterated the new policy's expected economic impact, measured not only by savings to county agencies but also in strengthening the workforce.
"[A criminal record] stops people in their tracks. It changes their path in life, it limits their opportunities, and ultimately we're depriving our workforce of the strength it needs to meet the challenges of a growing economy in this region -- and that is priceless," Ogg said.
Ogg was forceful in reiterating that the new policy neither legalizes nor decriminalizes marijuana possession, which is still illegal in Texas.
"We are simply doing something that is within the lawful discretion of every DA in the country, which is to pre-charge, divert all people in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana as long as they are eligible for the program," she said.
The new policy was not without its critics. In a press release earlier this week, Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said that Ogg "doesn't speak for the State of Texas or the majority of elected District and County Attorney's [sic] across the State" and urged her to "respect the jurisdictional differences between Montgomery County and Harris County."
In a statement, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's press secretary said "he does not believe that law enforcement has the discretion to choose what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore."