Texas County Establishes Diversion Program for All Misdemeanor Marijuana Offenses

houston-texas-usa-building-1620695Legal restrictions on marijuana seem to be loosening all over the country, at least at the state level. Under both Texas and federal law, though, marijuana remains a highly restricted controlled substance. While public support for lessening restrictions is reportedly growing in Texas, the Texas Legislature does not seem likely to change the law any time soon. The state’s most populous county, however, has initiated a program that changes how that county’s prosecutors will handle minor marijuana possession cases. According to the Harris County District Attorney, the purpose of the Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program (MMDP) is to reduce the burden on both the criminal justice system and the public of prosecuting thousands of people for nonviolent, minor marijuana offenses. The DA can assert prosecutorial discretion in deciding how to allocate resources, but this has not stopped critics from claiming that she is ignoring the law.

More than half of the states, as well as the District of Columbia and other territories, allow medical marijuana use to some extent. Texas is on this list, although it permits only very limited use. A handful of states have legalized the possession of marijuana in small amounts for recreational purposes. Texas is not on this list. Possession of two ounces or less of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, a maximum jail sentence of 180 days, or some combination thereof. Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.121(b)(1), Tex. Pen. Code § 12.22. Possession of more than two ounces, but not more than four ounces, is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries maximum penalties of a $4,000 fine and one year in jail. Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.121(b)(2), Tex. Pen. Code § 12.21.

According to the MMDP policy statement issued by the Harris County DA, the county prosecuted over 100,000 people for misdemeanor marijuana offenses over the past ten years. This reportedly cost more than $100 million, but “produced no tangible public safety benefit for the people of Harris County.” Instead, the DA states that the investigation and prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana cases took up police and county resources, including officers’ time, crime lab resources, space in county jails, and court dockets, “that should be spent bringing serious criminals to justice.”

The MMDP, which took effect on March 1, 2017, is available to qualifying individuals charged with possession of up to four ounces of marijuana. They must not be concurrently charged with any other offense that is at least a Class B misdemeanor. They also must not be subject to probation or deferred adjudication, or on bond for an ongoing criminal case at the time they are charged with the marijuana offense.

Participants must pay a $150 fee, and then complete a “4-hour class on decision making” within ninety days. Once they complete the course, the DA dismisses the charge. If they fail to complete the course by the deadline, the DA will resume prosecution.

Media reports are calling the MMDP the “decriminalization” of small amounts of marijuana in Harris County, but this is not entirely accurate. Marijuana possession remains a criminal offense under Texas law. The MMDP merely expands the opportunity to dispose of minor charges.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, has defended people’s rights against charges in West Texas state and federal courts since 1992. To schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and knowledgeable criminal justice advocate, please contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Lawsuits Challenge Police Use of Field Drug Testing Kits, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Federal Administrative and Court Decisions Paint Uncertain Picture Regarding Enforcement of Marijuana Laws, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Appellate Court Decision Addresses Conflict Between Federal and State Medical Marijuana Laws, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 25, 2017

Photo credit: Falkenpost [Public domain], via Pixabay.