Open Letter To Harris County District Attorney: Reforms To Marijuana Possession

Dear  Harris County District Attorney Ogg:

“The potential harm associated with smoking marijuana pales in comparison with the harm suffered by the millions who have been arrested, jailed and branded criminals simply because they were caught with the drug.” -- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.

I am writing to ask that you stop prosecuting people for simple marijuana possession, full stop. Jailing people for possessing marijuana serves no public safety value. In fact, it makes Harris County less safe because it diverts scarce resources away from more serious offenses and undermines the trust that our communities, especially black and brown communities, have for law enforcement.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans and over half of Texans believe that marijuana should be legalized. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pushed to decriminalize marijuana in Texas, and even the Republican Party platform contains a push to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Outside of Texas, ten states have authorized the recreational use of marijuana.

As the Harris County District Attorney, you have the power to de-prioritize the prosecution of drug possession cases, specifically marijuana possession. And yet your administration continues to prosecute these cases. Between March 2017 and December 2018, approximately 4,900 people in Harris County were arrested for possession of marijuana under 4 ounces. This is the case even though you instituted a Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program aimed at addressing the needless prosecution of such cases. One problem seems to be that under the Diversion Program, successful completion of the program requires a $150 drug education course, which is extremely difficult for people living in poverty to afford. '

The bottom line is that your administration is still charging marijuana possession. In January 2019 alone, your administration filed more than 300 misdemeanor marijuana possession charges with an average cash bail of $500. Using your discretion in this way undermines public safety in four important ways

African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be arrested for marijuana related offenses, despite similar use rates among people of color and white counterparts. This means that marijuana prosecutions deepen racial inequalities in Houston and Harris County at a time when voters clearly want their leaders to fight for racial justice.

Convictions for marijuana possession cases can result in permanent criminal records that can lead to loss of employment, financial aid, housing and child custody. These collateral consequences can destabilize individuals and their families, and jeopardize public safety.

Texas spends approximately $330 million per year on marijuana prohibition alone.  These financial resources could be better served to solve violent crimes that further public safety, especially when 40% of murders go unsolved in Harris County. Moreover, earlier this year, you requested over 100 new prosecutors arguing that your office had far too many cases per prosecutor even for serious cases like domestic violence. Why spend the resources to prosecute even a single marijuana possession case when you claim that your prosecutors do not have enough resources to prosecute these far more serious offenses?

Prosecuting simple marijuana possession cases, even as too many serious violent crimes like murder and sexual assault go unsolved and unprosecuted, leads Harris County citizens to not have faith in a criminal justice system that is supposed to protect them. Why should we ask people who live in communities that endure high homicide rates and low solve rates to trust law enforcement when we trade-off time on murder cases for marijuana cases?

You frequently claim that you are a reformer, and that your marijuana diversion program reflects that orientation. However no one should be spending time in jail for simple marijuana possession, without articulated facts showing an intent to distribute. That’s why reform-minded prosecutors across the country have adopted policies that are far more rigorous and fair in their attempt to ensure that people are not jailed for marijuana possession.

I started this letter with a quote from Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow. Here’s another one: The fate of millions of people—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” As a black woman, a former prosecutor in your office, and a resident of Houston and Harris County, I’m asking you to re-examine your assumptions about the need to jail people for marijuana possession.

If, however, you believe jailing people for marijuana possession is a good idea, I’m asking you to join me at a public forum to talk together with our community about why it’s in the public interest to continue to arrest and prosecute people for marijuana possession. Will you commit to furthering this discussion?

Kindest Regards,

Audia Jones

2020 Democratic Candidate For Harris County District Attorney

Audia Jones for DA