Tonight at the St. Paul United Methodist Church downtown, law enforcement and judicial officials will appear at a community forum to answer questions about the city’s new cite and release policy, which goes into effect Friday. District Attorney Faith Johnson will moderate the discussion with Sheriff Lupe Valdez, assistant police chief Gary Tittle, prosecutor Ellyce Lindberg, and county criminal court Judge Nancy Mulder.
Before tonight’s forum, and before Dallas police start citing and releasing, rather than arresting, people in possession of less than four ounces of marijuana, we answer a few burning questions about how this will affect the enforcement of marijuana laws in the county.
Does this mean I am free to blaze it now? No. Marijuana, also known as that good good, that devil’s lettuce, that kind bud, that reefer, that boom, that stank, remains illegal in the state of Texas.
Interesting. Speak on that. While 29 states have allowed the use of medical marijuana, including 7 (and the District of Columbia) that have approved recreational use, Texas legislators have taken no significant action on the subject despite an uptick in bills calling for everything from decriminalization to full legalization. Local officials have indicated that they intend to leave questions of marijuana’s legality in the hands of state lawmakers. It was a 2007 decision by the Legislature that cleared the way for cite and release and similar programs adopted recently in San Antonio, Austin, and Houston. Credit where it’s due.
So I shouldn’t bring any pot to the forum tonight? There will probably be a lot of cops there. Leave that sticky weed at home.
It’s still illegal, and I still get in trouble if I get caught with some of that sweet leaf? Correct.
Bummer, dude. Sort of. If you are found with less than four ounces, Dallas police can now issue you a citation and send you on your merry way. This is a better alternative to having your entire life immediately upended over a minor drug offense, sending you to take up limited jail space and waste dwindling police resources. Along with your freedom, that arrest could cost you your job and your livelihood, to start. If you are black or poor, or both, the negative effects of said arrest would be even more pronounced, with or without a conviction.
Yeah, that sounds bad. I’d rather be ticketed and dispatched. Cited and released. That citation should be thought of as more of a court order to appear than a traffic citation. You will be fingerprinted. You will still be prosecuted for misdemeanor drug possession, and will have to appear in court within a month or so. If you have outstanding warrants, or previous offenses, or you otherwise grievously upset the officer you are interacting with, you can still be arrested. Miss your court date, and you can be arrested.
You’re saying I could still wind up in jail eventually? Yes. In the state of Texas, possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana, a Class B misdemeanor, is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Between 2 and 4 ounces, a Class A misdemeanor, can get you up to a year and $4,000. If it’s a first-time offense, though, District Attorney Faith Johnson has said that you can enroll in Dallas County’s diversionary “memo program,” which includes treatment classes, drug tests, probation, and community service. Complete the program, and your charges will be dismissed.
What if I’m toking up in, say, Irving or Richardson, and the local fuzz there start hassling me? They are not bound by the city of Dallas’ new cite and release policy, and can still arrest you, a sort of county-wide loophole that led Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price to oppose the program earlier this year. Johnson (that’s the district attorney) has said that prosecutors will encourage judges in Dallas County to release anyone arrested and charged with first-time minor marijuana offenses on personal recognizance bonds, which do not require bail to be paid. All suspects, whether they are arrested or cited and released, will be prosecuted under the same standards.
Didn’t Dallas police already have better things to do than arrest first-time offenders for chiefing on a little bit of grass? Don’t we have, like, real problems, man? Police told the City Council earlier this year that more than 430 people arrested in 2016 would have been eligible for cite and release.
Hmm. This seems to be something of a half-measure that doesn’t actually address the disastrous effects of a futile war on drugs and four decades of absurd and meaningless enforcement of marijuana laws. To paraphrase the French theorist Roland Barthes, I fear we are confusing signs of charity with the reality of justice. It’s nice that some people won’t spend the night in jail and have their cars towed, I guess. Now you’re getting it.