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Marijuana Arrests Dropped in Dallas County. Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests Didn’t

Dallas County stopped prosecuting most first-time misdemeanor weed cases in 2019. So why were people still getting charged?
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Should this land you in jail? (Credit: Flickr Creative Commons)
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Marijuana Arrests Dropped in Dallas County. Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests Didn’t

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It’s been more than two years since Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot stopped pursuing most first-offense, misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.

Researchers at SMU’s Deason Criminal Justice Center are studying what happened when Dallas County relaxed marijuana prosecution. Previous reports from the center have found that, so far at least, the world hasn’t ended.

In 2019, when Creuzot took office, the overall number of marijuana cases referred to the DA dropped by more than 30 percent from the prior year, from 554 to 384. Creuzot’s policy had a measurable effect in reducing how often people were arrested for weed, according to a new report from the Deason Center. And yet.

“Volume is easy and disparity is hard,” Pamela Metzger, director of the Deason Center, said last week on a call with the Dallas Bar Association. “The DA said you’ll eliminate disparity by eliminating the cases. But fewer cases didn’t make it fairer.”

Black people, despite using marijuana at similar rates as Whites, were still being charged for weed possession far more often. In fact, that rate got worse in 2019, when Black people in Dallas County were nearly four-and-a-half times as likely to be referred for prosecution on marijuana charges, compared to four times in 2018.

Prosecutors declining to pursue all first-time, minor pot possession cases did not stop police from trying. Officers have the discretion to decide whether to arrest somebody, issue a warning, or do nothing at all.

This report shows that, in 2019, many law enforcement agencies in Dallas County were still sending small-potatoes weed cases to the DA.

“It’s really hard to understand these as cases that are anything less than the police kind of imposing their own set of punishments,” Metzger says. “Now, that may not be what they intend. But if you’re the person sitting in jail, on a case that the DA’s office has been saying for two solid years—actually, almost three now—will be declined, [it’s] very hard to understand how this isn’t punishment without process.”

Police departments differed in how they responded to Creuzot’s new policy. In 2019, the racial disparity in marijuana cases referred to the DA’s office improved in Mesquite, the city of Dallas, and Grand Prairie. It got worse in Richardson, Garland, and Irving.

The Dallas Police Department, to its credit, made it official policy earlier this year to stop charging people for small amounts of pot. (Marijuana remains illegal in Texas, and officers will still take your pot.)

You can see the full report here.

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