Dallas City Council Approved "Cite-and-Release" Law for Minor Marijuana Offenses
Proposed Changes to Marijuana Laws at the State Level
April 5, 2017
The 85th Texas Legislative Session has been host to a number of bills proposing radical changes to state marijuana laws. The most revolutionary of the proposals is Senate Joint Resolution 17, authored by State Sen. José Rodriguez. This joint resolution proposes a constitutional amendment authorizing and regulating the possession, cultivation, and sale of cannabis for recreational use. The proposed amendment could appear at voting booths around Texas on November 6, 2018. On January 30, 2017, it was referred to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.
Sen. Rodriguez also proposed Senate Bill 170, which is currently languishing in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, as well. Senate Bill 170 contemplates amending Section 481.121(b) of the Texas Health and Safety Code to exempt possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from criminal prosecution. It also contains a new section that would create a civil penalty, not to exceed $250, for those who are caught in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. To further this proposed scheme, the bill creates a defense to prosecution for possession of drug paraphernalia possessed or used in furtherance of smoking one ounce or less of marijuana; without this defense, recreational users could still face criminal penalties.
In the Texas House of Representatives, State Rep. Joseph Moody (D-El Paso) filed House Bill 81, which mirrored Senate Bill 170, but it was left pending in the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on March 13, 2017. However, Rep. Moody proposed an amendment while it was in committee, which caused it to be approved by a 4–2 vote. The amendment included a provision allowing judges “to elevate the civil offense to a Class C misdemeanor if a violator has already been cited three times” for marijuana possession, which placated the more conservative committee members.
State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. (D-Houston) introduced a separate bill, House Bill 82, which proposes classifying the first two convictions for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as Class C misdemeanors rather than Class B misdemeanors. House Bill 82 was referred to the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on February 3, 2017.
The only piece of legislation proposed by a Republican is House Bill 58. Rep. James White’s (R-Woodville) bill would allow municipalities to establish a “first chance intervention program” for those caught in possession of marijuana. The specialty courts that would implement this program would only be available to those who have not been charged with additional crimes relating to the same incident giving rise to the marijuana charge, who do not have outstanding warrants, and who have never been convicted of a crime punishable by more than fine. House Bill 58 was referred to the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on February 20, 2017.
One reporter for the Dallas Morning News was quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t hold your breath on [marijuana legalization] passing this year.” It is easy to understand why a person may be skeptical of such a progressive reform occurring in a state as conservative as Texas. However, “cite and release” and other diversionary programs have the support of State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. “They have discretion at the DA’s office,” Sen. Whitmire was quoted as saying, adding that more lenient policies would be a “real practical approach” that is “tough and smart on crime.”
Houston’s New Policy for Marijuana Possession
On March 1, 2017, Houston police busted nine people for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana; these nine people opted to take a drug-education class to avoid being fined or imprisoned. These nine drug users are the first to exercise this new option offered by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
Under this new policy, if police have probable cause to arrest a person for having fewer than four ounces of marijuana in their possession, they are to: (a) confiscate the drugs, and (b) have the person sign a contract stating that they agree to take a drug-education class. If the person completes the class, the drugs will be destroyed and the contract will be sealed, meaning there is no court record, thus allowing the drug user to turn over a new leaf. Failure to complete the class will result in a criminal case being filed against the person.
“Cite and Release” in Dallas
In 2007, the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing municipalities to employ “cite and release” tactics for certain misdemeanor crimes, including marijuana possession. This policy allows counties to address chronic resource scarcity issues by allowing officers to forgo arresting certain recreational marijuana users, which costs police hours that could be used to investigate and stop violent crimes. Austin and its surrounding areas have already been subjected to this experimental “cite and release” policy.
In March of 2016, the Dallas City Council voted against trying a six-month pilot “cite and release” program. The vote was vehemently opposed by Dallas Police Chief David Brown and 10 of the 15 council members voted against the program. But the time and effort spent on the measure did not go up in smoke with this vote.
On April 13, 2017, the Dallas City Council approved a "cite-and-release" program to ticket people who have fewer than 4 ounces of pot and who are not alleged to have committed any other crime. The policy will take effect Oct. 1, 2017.
Dallas City Councilman Philip Kingston believes that because more than 100 police officers have left the Dallas Police Department since January 1, 2017, resource scarcity issues may have spurred some council members to vote for his program this time around. Hope was also found in a University of Texas poll released in February of 2017, which showed that only 17 percent of Texans opposed marijuana legalization in any form, down from 24 percent two years ago.
The new enforcement policy does not decriminalize or legalize marijuana. And the policy will apply only in the parts of Dallas inside Dallas County, which will create and administer the summonses. Collin, Rockwall, Kaufman and Denton counties are not participating.
 Sam DeGrave, Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Advances Past Committee with GOP Support, Tex. Observer (Apr. 3, 2017), https://www.texasobserver.org/marijuana-decriminalization-bill-advances-past-committee-gop-support/.
 Scott Gordon, Texas Lawmakers Consider Reforming Marijuana Laws, NBCDFW.com (Jan. 8, 2017), http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Texas-Lawmakers-Consider-Reforming-Marijuana-Laws-410035225.html.
 Sanya Mansoor, New Harris County policy reignites marijuana decriminalization debate, Tex. Trib. (Feb. 16, 2017), https://www.texastribune.org/2017/02/16/texas-lawmakers-disagree-houston-moves-decriminalize-marijuana/.
 Mayra Moreno, Day One of Harris County’s New Marijuana Policy, ABC13.com (Mar. 2, 2017), http://abc13.com/news/day-one-of-harris-countys-new-marijuana-policy/1780140/.
 Emily Foxhall & Brian Rogers, Harris County moves to forefront in relaxing marijuana-possession punishment, Hous. Chron. (Feb. 27, 2017), http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Harris-County-moves-to-forefront-in-relaxing-10962011.php.
 Act of September 1, 2007, 80th Leg., H.B. 2391, § 1 (to be codified at Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 14.06).
 Mikaela Cannizzo, Cite and release policy in Austin to soon be enacted in other Texas counties, Daily Texan (Jan. 28, 2016), http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2016/01/28/cite-and-release-policy-in-austin-to-soon-be-enacted-in-other-texas-counties (reporting that the policy “is currently used in Hays County, Travis County and Williamson County, according to Lee Knouse, senior police officer with the Austin Police Department”).
 Josh Davis, Dallas council votes down cite-and-release for marijuana possession, WFAA.com (Mar. 23, 2016), http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/dallas-county/dallas-council-votes-down-cite-and-release-for-marijuana-possession/98786612.
 Noelle Walker, Dallas City Council Considering Cite and Release Policy for Marijuana Possession, NBCDFW.com (Feb. 23, 2017), http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Dallas-City-Council-Considering-Cite-and-Release-Policy-for-Marijuana-Possession--414678873.html.