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New Harris County policy reignites marijuana decriminalization debate

After Harris County’s move to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, Texas lawmakers disagree about whether local jurisdictions have the discretion to enact such policies.

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Some state officials are fuming at Harris County's forthcoming policy to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, while others say local jurisdictions should have discretion when it comes to enforcing laws.

The policy, announced Thursday by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and set to begin March 1, will mean that possessing fewer than 4 ounces of marijuana won't result in an arrest, ticket or court appearance if the offender agrees to take a drug education class, the Houston Chronicle reported.

While the Legislature is unlikely to take any statewide action on marijuana legislation, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate had strong and conflicting opinions on the issue.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already condemned the policy, comparing the debate over marijuana decriminalization to the debate over "sanctuary" policies. "[Patrick] does not believe that law enforcement has the discretion to choose what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore,” spokesman Alejandro Garcia said in a statement.

The top two members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee are similarly at odds over the new Harris County measure.

“They have discretion at the DA’s office. You’ve just got to get the public safety job done,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the committee's chairman. “The people enforcing this are elected officials; it’s not like they parachuted in out of nowhere. They simply decided they will apply the law in a different manner.”

Whitmire said the shift in policy would be a “real practical approach” that is “tough and smart on crime.”

“If you listen to experts and professional law enforcement officers, they believe it will allow them to use their resources more effectively by going after dangerous violent offenders,” Whitmire said. “How could I question [the policy], if I can call an officer and he or she is going to be at my house quicker [because they are not busy] messing around with low-level marijuana offenders?”

But the committee's vice chairwoman, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that while she supports some programs, such as pre-arrest diversion for first-time youthful offenders, the Harris County policy "goes too far."

"It's bad for the County, bad for our kids, and good for the drug dealers," she said in a statement to the Tribune.

Members of the Texas House also had conflicting opinions about whether Harris County had the discretion to diverge from state rulings.

Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, was wary about the city’s decision and echoed Patrick’s concerns about following the laws in place.

“We should enforce the laws we have. If we need to change them, we need to have that conversation and be conscious and deliberate about it, as opposed to every jurisdiction kind of doing for itself what it wants,” Murphy said. “That’s what got us into this whole mess on immigration laws.”

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, has filed legislation this session to eliminate jail time and arrest for Texans facing penalties for small amounts of possession of marijuana. He said he applauded Ogg’s efforts and said his bill would “essentially do what she’s doing ... on a statewide level.”

“I think she’s doing the same thing every prosecutor around the state does, and that’s using prosecutorial discretion to create policy they feel is best for their community,” Moody said.

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Courts Criminal justice State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Jim Murphy Joan Huffman John Whitmire Joseph "Joe" Moody Marijuana Terry Canales Texas Legislature Todd Hunter